The Adventure Gospel

Not long ago, I heard a sermon that shocked me — and, at the same time, took me back in time.  “Life is a great adventure,” said the preacher in his peroration.  “And if you’ve lost sight of that, you need to repent.”

I looked around at the familiar faces of the congregation.  Here was a man dying of stage 4 cancer; there, a family forced by financial pressures to sell their home.  This couple has a son who harbors resentment amounting to rage and will not speak to them.  And so on and on through all of us, divorced, bereaved, addicted, ill, injured, unemployed, uprooted, depressed.  The poor and needy.

And I thought, So now it’s not enough that we put our hope in God (Psalm 42:5; 130:7), and wait for His salvation (Psalm 27:14; 130:5-6; Lamentations 3:26; Romans 8:19-25; 1 Thessalonians 1:10); that we turn from idols and keep from grumbling (1 Corinthians 10:7, 10); that we attempt to count our trials joy (James 1:2) and to rejoice in God alone (Habakkuk 3:17-18; Philippians 4:4); that we retain our confidence that we shall still see His goodness in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13); that we sow in and through our tears (Psalm 126:5-6) and do good without wearying, expecting a harvest (Galatians 6:9; 1 Corinthians 15:58); that we consider ourselves dead (Romans 6:11; Galatians 2:20), take up our cross each day (Luke 9:23; 14:27), present our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), accept our share of the suffering (2 Timothy 2:3; Philippians 3:10) to which we have been called (1 Peter 2:21; 4:13), abide in the Lord Jesus (John 15:4-10), and allow the Holy Spirit to refresh in us our first love for Him (Revelation 2:4); and that we clothe ourselves with Christ (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27) and with His love for others (Colossians 3:14).  Now, if we do not also deem the journey and each of its phases a thrilling adventure ride, we have turned our hearts to rebellion and require cleansing and correction.

In dismay I asked, Where is this coming from?  And then I remembered: Oh, yeah.  John Eldredge.

Diminished Men

I couldn’t find my copies of The Sacred Romance and Wild at Heart — the books never resonated with me as they have with many men.  But my local public library furnished the latter volume, as well as a book called Desire.  From these, I gather that Eldredge starts from a place of compassion.  He sees Christian men, frustrated and bored with their lives, struggling to remain faithful or even engaged with God and family and church, silently screaming, “Is this all there is?”  Feeling stuck and short-changed, they may bust out or break down or quit.

Most Christians I know, women as well as men, are disappointed with their churches.  Decades ago, the promise of charismatic renewal was that we would rediscover the gifts distributed among all believers, and enter upon new forms of “body ministry.”  Today, in our church services, we are neither trained nor equipped; two or three people do all the talking, while the rest of us listen passively, put money in the plate, help rearrange the furniture, and go home.  We are left to find life “in the Spirit,” life “in Christ,” in a small group or at home.

Eldredge goes further, though.  He doesn’t hope to reform our churches.  They are, he believes, an essentially “feminine” domain, places of nice manners (1) and “sanctified resignation.” (2)  For the most part, he is quite ready to abandon them, to venture outdoors into wilderness to encounter the God who Himself is “fierce” (Wild 31) and “wild” (Wild 33) at heart:

Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man.  The masculine heart needs a place where nothing is prefabricated, modular, nonfat, zip lock, franchised, on-line, microwavable. . . .  Look at the heroes of the biblical text: Moses does not encounter the living God at the mall.  He finds him (or is found by him) somewhere out in the deserts of Sinai, a long way from the comforts of Egypt.  The same is true of Jacob, who has his wrestling match with God not on the living room sofa but in a wadi somewhere east of the Jabbok, in Mesopotamia.  Where did the great prophet Elijah go to recover his strength?  To the wild.  As did John the Baptist, and his cousin, Jesus, who is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  (Wild 5-6; emphasis in original)

You might even need to give up going to church for a while or reading your Bible.  I stopped going to church for a year; it was one of the most refreshing years of my life.  I hadn’t abandoned God, and I very much sought out the company of my spiritual companions.  What I gave up was the performance of having to show up every Sunday morning with my happy face on.  (Desire 169)

The settings for Eldredge’s books have to do with mountain climbing and fly-fishing; in addition to Scripture, his reference points include movies like Braveheart and Gladiator.  He also draws more than a little from the “men’s movement” of the 1990s, particularly Robert Bly’s Iron John.  So, when he speaks of “adventure,” Eldredge actually means a spiritual quest.  Every man secretly wonders, “Do I have what it takes?  Am I powerful?” (Wild 64).  We need to be “initiated” (Bly’s word), and God is the One who can do it (Wild 103-07).

More recently, Mark Batterson has taken up the theme of adventure.  But in his hands, the quest disappears; there’s no wound to be healed, nor any initiation to be accomplished.  Instead, life itself becomes a rich and rewarding series of surprises:

You are hardwired for an adventure that is as unique as you are. . . .
The very nature of the gospel is Jesus inviting the disciples on an adventure.  (3)

If you follow Jesus, adventure comes looking for you.  (Trip 18)

. . . I’m going to squeeze as much adventure out of every day as I possibly can.  (Trip 172)

Eternity is adventure without end.  (Trip 191)

Batterson acknowledges that his “life motto” — “Another day, another adventure” — is taken, not from the Word of God, but from a Spanish can of Sprite (Trip 197).  Still, his message may engage jaded, disaffected teens.  The larger question is whether it is the right message — God’s message — for adult believers in the midst of life.  Has God really promised us endless variety, a personal roller coaster of excitement?  Or does He in fact call us to something far more difficult, to a road shadowed by a Cross, described by Eugene Peterson as “a long obedience in the same direction”? (4)  I believe this question deserves further consideration.

A Road Less Traveled

The metaphor of the journey is one of the oldest pictures of the Christian life.  As “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13, RSV; compare 1 Peter 2:11), we wander.  The “way” by which God leads believers is more than a road; it becomes a course of life.  Ultimately, Jesus Himself is the Way (John 14:6), the “new and living way” into the Father’s presence (Hebrews 10:20).

The Bible has much to say about this road, but a few of its adjectives are particularly relevant here.  Contrary to Batterson, although the paths of God are “pleasantness” and “peace” (Proverbs 3:17; compare Isaiah 59:8; Luke 1:79), they are also “narrow” and “hard” (Matthew 7:14, RSV), and often “solitary” (Psalm 107:4, KJV, Amplified).  Batterson’s co-author writes, “Adventuring, for me, is going somewhere new, by any means, with Jesus and friends” (Foth, Trip 196).  But we may not insist  on the newness, nor the friends, and we will often be assailed by the wrenching doubt that whispers relentlessly that we have been abandoned.  As Peterson says, there are no shortcuts on the way, and it is not for “tourists” who “only want the high points” (Obedience 17).

Eldredge is entirely prepared for hardship, and to some extent for loneliness.  He sees that, though the paths of God are “ancient” (Jeremiah 6:16) and “established” (Proverbs 4:26, KJV, Amplified), they also appear “hidden” (Job 3:23), and that at times He leads us by ways “not known” and “unfamiliar” (Isaiah 42:16, NIV).  He even accepts, at least in the short term, that following God may sap rather than increase our strength; in the psalmist’s words, “He weakened my strength in the way” (Psalm 102:23, KJV; Amplified “He has afflicted and weakened my strength, humbling and bringing me low [with sorrow] in the way”).  What Eldredge seems to forget sometimes is that God leads us in “paths of righteousness” (Psalm 23:3; Proverbs 16:31; 2 Peter 2:21), “the Way of Holiness” (Isaiah 35:8, NIV) — from which it is all too easy to turn aside quickly (Exodus 32:8; Deuteronomy 9:12, 16; Judges 2:17) in order to follow some “way that seems right to a man” (Proverbs 14:12). (5)

Both writers tend to overlook the fact that the journey is one metaphor among many.  The believer is also compared in Scripture to “a tree planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3, NIV; Jeremiah 17:7-8), “rooted and grounded” (Ephesians 3:17, KJV, RSV; Colossians 2:7) in Christ the Vine (John 15:1-8; Romans 11:17-24).  If Eldredge should complain that this image is not “masculine” enough, note that, for the psalmists, godly daughters are “pillars carved to adorn a palace,” while it is the sons, explicitly, who are “well-nurtured plants” (Psalm 144:12, NIV; compare 128:3; 52:8).

Eldredge and Batterson take a heroic view of life.  God is “wild” and “fierce.”  Jesus is “the quintessential adventurer” (Trip 42), a leader much like Braveheart‘s William Wallace (Wild 26).  Since they begin with the assumption that every man desires “a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue” (Wild 9-10) — whereas every woman, though she wants “an adventure to share,” especially needs “to be fought for” and “chosen” (Wild 16-17, 184) — they are naturally drawn to the Biblical narratives about Jacob, David, Elijah, Paul.

But if the Lord is “a man of war” (Exodus 15:3, KJV, Amplified, RSV), the God who strolls in His garden (Genesis 3:8), and teaches toddlers to walk (Hosea 11:3), and yearns to gather His brood (Luke 13:34), and gazes longingly down the road (Luke 15:20), may almost be called a divine Homebody.  He is not so much wild as surprising, and never more so than in His faithfulness.

And while Jesus is a Champion, He consistently disappoints every human, fleshly expectation concerning a Savior.  His words confound (Matthew 13:10-15), and cause many to take offense and leave (John 6:60-66), and this is largely because He does not invite people to go adventuring, but to follow Him — to receive Him by faith as Lord and Messiah.  Batterson defines “disciple” as “learner,” (6) but the New Testament disciples are led and shaped and broken, not merely instructed and amused.  Soon enough, Jesus tells them that following Him means death to self and a daily cross (Luke 9:23-24).  The man who enlists in a spirit of adventure — “I will always follow You no matter where You go” (Luke 9:57, Living) — is quickly dismissed.

He would not let His casual hearers turn Him into the king they imagined (John 6:15).  He will not allow us to separate the Lion in Him from the Lamb, submissive to the Father unto death.

As for the men (and women) of the Bible, “hero” is not the best word to sum up most of their careers.  Abraham wanders and waits; Jacob and Moses spend decades tending sheep (vividly described in Genesis 31:40-42).  An aging David tires in battle (2 Samuel 21:15-17), and must make a difficult transition out of his identity as a warrior.  Peter discovers in Gethsemane that he is neither called nor cut out to be a sword-wielding Braveheart.  Paul is most like an “adventurer” or a “hero” when he is Saul the persecutor; (7) after he meets Christ, true to his theology of the Cross, he is conscious of “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:10, RSV) — and he calls upon his converts, not to embark on a great adventure, but “to live quietly and peacefully, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11, Amplified).

A “typical” person in Scripture is not a king, a judge, or even a common foot soldier.  It might be someone like the man we meet in Acts 3.  “Crippled from birth” (verse 2, NIV), and now more than 40 years old (4:22), he has spent most of his life sitting outside one of the Temple gates, begging.  There is nothing remotely exciting or adventurous about this existence.  He has no trade, no social status; at worst he is despised and abused, at best a figure of pity and charity.  Wholly dependent on others, he must be carried to and from his post each day (3:2).  From day to hardscrabble day, he makes do, as best he can.  But he has been placed in this condition (as Jesus says of another man, born blind) “in order that the workings of God should be manifested — displayed and illustrated — in him” (John 9:3, Amplified).  Healed through Peter and John, he becomes a walking, leaping demonstration of the power of the risen Lord.

Can’t this be said of every believer?  We carry “treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7, NIV).  This is not a matter of exploits, but of receiving grace and strength to rise and walk in newness of life.

We each tend to have a story that we tell ourselves, explaining who we are and what our lives are about.  If Paul is right, this is a form of whistling in the dark, a cloak for ignorance — because, in truth, we rarely glimpse the “treasure” of God’s “all-surpassing power” in our lives; it is on display for others, not for us.  Part of the value of the Adventure Gospel is that it shows the harm done by our make-believe.  Let’s look briefly at three key components of one popular version of the story — two from Eldredge, one from Batterson — to see the types of glaze we bake onto our clay jars.

The Illusion of Self-Fulfillment

Eldredge is fond of saying that believers are not just “sinners saved by grace”; we are new creations with good hearts (Wild 146), and our deepest desires are good (Desire 168):

Sin is not the deepest thing about you.  You have a new heart.  Did you hear me?  Your heart is good.  (Wild 136; emphasis in original)

Now follow me very closely here: we are never, ever told to crucify our heart.  We are never told to kill the true man within us, never told to get rid of those deep desires for battle and adventure and beauty.  (Wild 147)

On Eldredge’s view, we need to learn to listen to our deep desires (Desire viii – ix).  We are desire (Desire 11), and desire or longing is faith (Desire 57-59).  Whatever brings me back to my own heart brings me to the heart of God (Wild 173).  The statement in Jeremiah 17:9 — “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt” (RSV) — no longer applies; it has been replaced by Jeremiah 31:33: “I will put My law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts” (RSV) (Wild 136).

These are reckless statements — as when the prophet Nathan says to David, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you” (2 Samuel 7:3, NIV).  The Lord soon overrules this blanket approval (7:4-5).  Samuel gives similar encouragement to Saul (1 Samuel 10:7), with disastrous results.

The New Testament consistently teaches that the transformation of our hearts, and the purification of our desires, constitute a gradual, ongoing process:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.  (Ephesians 4:22-24, NIV)

This “putting off” and “putting on” is neither quick nor painless.  It requires the crucifixion of hopes and feelings that go very deep, as well as an ongoing watchfulness lest we revert to old ways:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with [or “walk in line with”] (8) the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.  (Galatians 5:24-26, NIV)

It is irresponsible to suggest that we can somehow “die to self” and become Christ’s while still insisting on our own way, clinging to the “core desires” of our hearts.  God demands nothing less than our death — as when He tells Abraham to offer up his only son, whom he loves (Genesis 22:2), the boy who is his heart and his hope.  Abraham’s faith during those three days was emphatically not the same as his desire; rather, he “against [this-worldly] hope believed in hope [of a life beyond this world]” (Romans 4:18), placing his trust in a God who can raise the dead (Hebrews 11:19).  When he receives Isaac back, it is not as if his desire has never been relinquished; rather, more than ever, he lives as one “having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10, RSV, NIV).

It is wrong to say that we are asked only to crucify a false self (Wild 147) — and, even if it were true, we are in no condition to exercise discernment.  For the New Testament warns that we are easily deceived (Hebrews 3:13), often by ourselves (James 1:26), and not least when we cling to heroic images and agendas: “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:3, NIV).

The frustrating thing is that Eldredge knows better.  In scattered comments, he acknowledges that we can’t simply follow our hearts (Desire 202), that the Law of God helps guide us to legitimate desires (Desire 176), and that it takes Christian maturity to know what we’ve been made for (Wild 208).  He has a good chapter about God thwarting our (apparent or illegitimate) desires (Desire 89-105).  He even has a warning for “adventure addicts,” arguing that they have settled for a “counterfeit” (Wild 151).

But the confusion is there.  So long as Eldredge paints Jesus as an action hero, and talks more about uncovering desires than about the Cross, his message is one of self-fulfillment.

John Piper, who has written a much better book on godly desire than Eldredge’s, follows Jonathan Edwards in suggesting that, in regeneration, God implants a new sense or taste: a longing for, and delight in, the person of Christ. (9)  This means that the believer is no longer limited to the original (since the Fall) set of human or “typically male” desires that Eldredge makes so much of.  Instead of finding a Christian way to fulfill adolescent desires for adventure, we should be living from new and God-centered desires.

At present we are still engaged in “putting off” as well as “putting on.”  Our new desire for God exists alongside all of our old hopes, and some conflicts and confusions are inevitable. Batterson is quick to quote the words of Jesus, “I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance — to the full, till it overflows” (John 10:10, Amplified), and he links this to the adventure, here and now (Trip 17).  But what if the “abundant life” is less about varied scenery and events, and more about becoming spiritually alive, even in the midst of a “quiet life” of servanthood and suffering?  Meditating on 1 Corinthians 15:19 (“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied,” RSV), Piper concludes that Paul chooses present suffering and future hope, repudiating any middling view that “Life goes better with Christ” (Desiring God 214-15).  In effect, Paul rejects the Sprite can.

This extends as well to frustrations concerning the present state of churches and Christian fellowship.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, amid very difficult circumstances, devoted himself to building Christian community, penned these words:

We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.

That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more.  One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood.  He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood. (10)

In fact, knowingly or not, we go to other Christians to be pared down, to have “the secrets of [our] heart[s] laid bare” (1 Corinthians 14:25, Amplified).  Christ must increase in our hearts and lives, and we must decrease (John 3:30).

The Illusion of Significance (11)

At least since the 1590s, and the exploits of Edmund Spenser’s Redcrosse Knight in The Faerie Queene, we have had explicitly Christian adventure stories.  Why then should we question the modern offshoots?

Well, for one thing, the early writers knew that they were working with metaphors and symbols.  And the quest was not their only model; they were apt to be as steeped in The Song of Solomon as in the life of David.

It’s also noteworthy that the adventure, in and of itself, has not always been seen in a positive light.  In The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), Christian has no love for the open road; he sets out because he is convinced that wrath is coming and that there is an incorruptible inheritance for those who believe. (12)  His wife Christiana is even warned by Mrs. Timorous that it is a “desperate adventure” to follow him (Progress 179) — all risk and danger, with little hope of enjoyment.  “Adventuring” here is no end in itself, and not to be undertaken lightly.

By 1908, the year of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, we are in a different world.  Christianity is perceived as established, traditional, stale, predictable, and dull.  Against this background, Chesterton ably argues that people need “adventure and romance,” (13) that life itself is a wonder-filled adventure (Orthodoxy 35).  Still, for him, the great adventure is not the journey of an individual but the career of the Christian Church, a thundering chariot miraculously steered between extremes, maintaining a perilous equilibrium, a dramatic sanity (Orthodoxy 68-70).

Historian Douglas Frank describes American evangelicals contemporary with Chesterton as cultivating a “hero system,” holding forth examples of “overcoming” and “victorious” Christian living (Conquerors 250-51).  No one expressed this more forcefully than the revivalist Billy Sunday: “Let me tell you the manliest man is the man who will acknowledge Jesus Christ.” (14)  Sunday preached against alcohol while feeding his hearers’ deep thirst for more — more things, experiences, adventures (Conquerors 273).  Frank pores over Sunday’s sermons, with their constant theme of heroic manhood, and concludes:

All this would indicate that perhaps Sunday’s deepest purpose in preaching was not to speak of God, of his victory and his salvation, but to speak of humanity and its possibilities for strength and heroism and goodness.  (Conquerors 193)

The hero venturing forth to vanquish monsters has ceased to be a metaphor in Sunday’s words.  And this is the world Eldredge inhabits, too.  In one especially sad and telling passage, he tries to encourage a man who fears he’s not cut out to be a hero:

“I’d love to be William Wallace, leading the charge with a big sword in my hand,” sighed a friend.  “But I feel like I’m the guy back there in the fourth row, with a hoe.”  That’s a lie of the Enemy — that your place is really insignificant, that you aren’t really armed for it anyway.  In your life you are William Wallace — who else could be?  There is no other man who can replace you in your life, in the arena you’ve been called to.  If you leave your place in the line, it will remain empty.  No one else can be who you are meant to be.  You are the hero in your story.  Not a bit player, not an extra, but the main man.  (Wild 144; emphasis in original)

Earlier, Jesus was William Wallace (Wild 26).  Now every man can be his own William Wallace — and his own Jesus Christ.

The Illusion of Constant Engagement

Batterson sounds a curious refrain: “Trust me, you cannot follow Jesus and be bored at the same time!” he writes in a chapter titled “Never a Dull Moment” (Trip 120).  Of course this isn’t literally true, as he acknowledges elsewhere, but he is sure that it should be:

Anything less than leveraging all our strength for God’s purposes is boring at best and hypocritical at worst.  So many Christians are so bored.  So many Christians are so frustrated by the gap between their theology and reality.  The way to close the gap, and the way to experience that holy rush of adrenaline again, is to break a sweat serving others.  (Primal 135)

The promise of a life free from boredom is perhaps an effective carrot to dangle before the eyes of jaded and apathetic young people.  But it’s a promise that God never makes.  Never bored?  Even the wise virgins drop off to sleep (Matthew 25:5)!  If anything, it’s the rich fool (Luke 12:18-19) who manages to keep himself entertained.

Batterson’s insistence on this point — and his setting in opposition to boredom, not contentment, not hope, not worship and praise, but a “rush of adrenaline” — indicate something deeper: a horror of being found to have lived an ordinary life.  Because her story influenced his conversion, he seizes upon Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian sent to a Nazi extermination camp for rescuing Jews; after her release, she spent decades traveling the world, sharing her message that the light of Christ is deeper and stronger than the darkest pit. (15)  Batterson makes this odd remark:

One thing is for sure: Corrie ten Boom may have been scared, anxious, brave, courageous, wounded, triumphant, weak, powerful, desperate, and hope filled . . . but she was never bored.  (Trip 121-22)

This is a throwaway line, but it is also an article of faith, and so it merits examination.  Let us take a moment to see how Corrie ten Boom herself described her exemplary life of service.

Arrested at the end of February 1944, she was taken first to Scheveningen prison in the Netherlands.  She spent four months there, mostly in a solitary cell.  She entered what she calls “the dull routine of prison life.” (16)  “Then a prison boredom — which I soon learned to fear above all else — settled over the cell” (Hiding Place 142; compare Prisoner 24).

It was oppressively quiet in the prison.  The time dragged slowly by.  So unlike former days!  I always had been so very busy.  There was never a moment in the day that I was not doing something.  And now . . . !  However, my days of imprisonment would not be over until I had served my time; and my one purpose therefore had to be to pass away the time, somehow.  (Prisoner 33-34)

Through the bars I could see the blue skies of Spring and now and then a bird.  I lay for hours gazing at that window, my thinking at a complete standstill.  Was I becoming dull?  Never before had there been such an emptiness in my life.  (Prisoner 34)

Well, but surely this was just an effect of solitary confinement.  Next, Corrie ten Boom was transferred to the Vught prison camp, still in the Netherlands, for a couple of months.  Now she was surrounded by other prisoners — and of course Jesus was with her.  So boredom was out of the question.  Or was it?

For hours we now sat side by side at the tables doing nothing.  Boredom gradually crept over us.  (Prisoner 50)

Our biggest problem was idleness, wedged together as we were around the long rows of tables with nothing to do.  (Hiding Place 172)

All right, but all of this was merely preparatory.  The real work began, the mission field opened, when she was transported to the Ravensbruck extermination camp in Germany.  That must have been tremendously exciting! — except that, here too, she writes of the “sheer boredom” of prisoners (Prisoner 127).  She longed for an end (Prisoner 133); grief and fear joined with the emptiness, and “the accumulated misery threatened to overwhelm me” (Hiding Place 212).  “How dark and burdensome days can be!” (Prisoner 151).

Still, Batterson might say, Corrie ten Boom’s entire prison ordeal, which set the course for the rest of her life, lasted only a little less than a year.  Once released, equipped with a message and a mission, she must never again have been troubled by boredom.

Indeed, she had 30 years of travel and ministry.  Though “often lonely” (Life Lessons 141), she experienced considerable variety.  But this was followed by a very different life stage, which many people know nothing about.  In August 1978, this valiant servant — who hoped to die “in harness”; (17) who with all her heart believed, “God does not take away from us” (Tramp 158) — suffered the first of three major strokes.  “Tante Corrie no longer had the ability to speak and understand, nor could she read, write, interpret gestures, or make meaningful signs to those around her.” (18)  She lived another five years, once again in “a kind of imprisonment” (Silent 128, 138).  She accepted a straitened life, with “moments of frustration and an emotional debility” (Silent 155).  For a time she struggled to relearn the names of simple objects, but the speech therapist had to stop the lessons when she showed insufficient improvement.  Presented with “the news that she would in all probability never speak again,” she wept (Silent 122-23).

Settled into a home of her own in California, cared for by loving companions, her life was not desolate, but it was . . . boring:

The days went slowly by.  We heard the familiar whirring of the electric bed as we lowered it to change her position, the metallic clicking of the rails as we raised and lowered them to turn our patient, the ticking of the brown clock.  Nine months passed.  It was not easy for her or for us.  It was very hard sometimes.  There were days when the routine seemed endless and the hours seemed to last for days.  (Silent 158)

It is good that none of us knew that at eighty-eight years of age more than two years of complete physical helplessness were still ahead of Tante Corrie.  (Silent 169)

The plodding routine became almost numbing.  (Silent 170)

“One thing is for sure,” writes Batterson: “Corrie ten Boom . . . was never bored” (Trip 121-22).  As we have seen, nothing is less assured.  One must create a mythical Corrie ten Boom with a heroic, action-movie life story in order to maintain this fatuous fiction.

From the real Corrie ten Boom, we may learn several lessons:

1. There are worse things than boredom.

Only people who are rich, pampered, spoiled, full wish to be delivered from boredom.  The oppressed of this world, the homeless, the refugees, the abused, the terrified and traumatized don’t ask for an adventure; they seek a shelter.  Usually God saves the rich by first making them poor.

Corrie ten Boom endured terrible boredom, all the while keeping her eye on a deadlier foe: “the most dangerous disease of the concentration camp, egoism” (Prisoner 155).  When she first arrived in Ravensbruck, others advised, “You can hold out provided you learn to take care only of yourself” (Prisoner 123). (19)  She came to see just how pernicious this reasoning was:

Now that I had been here for some time I could see what a great danger this camp life was for us spiritually.  Egoism would creep into our hearts before we were aware of it, and it was a tenacious devil, most difficult to dislodge.  For instance, a sweater was for sale.  Who should have it?  At once one thought, “I should, because I was so cold this morning.”  That others needed it just as badly you would be tempted to forget.  Need teaches us to pray, but need can also make us selfish.  (Prisoner 123; emphasis in original)

In the camp hospital, the suffering of others threatened to overwhelm compassion, and egoism offered a way to keep one’s head above water:

Even in the other patients I saw that stony indifference to others that was the most fatal disease of the concentration camp.  I felt it spread to myself: how could one survive if one kept on feeling!  The paralyzed and the unconscious kept falling out of the crowded narrow cots; that first night four women fell from upper bunks and died on the floor.  It was better to narrow the mind to one’s own need, not to see, not to think.  (Hiding Place 224)

John Piper makes the case that it is not selfish or idolatrous to take joy in worshiping God (Desiring God 84-87).  And we are invited to come to Him with our wounds, needs, and cares.  But is it not egoism — the same spiritual toxin that Corrie ten Boom describes — when I stand before God demanding fresh adventures, or insisting that He cast me as the lead in Braveheart?

2. There is something better than adventure.

Corrie ten Boom uses the word “adventure” in describing several seasons of her life.  Writing about the late 1930s, before the German occupation and her work with the underground, she says that she and her family “were about to be given adventure such as we had never dreamed of” (Hiding Place 7).  Her arrest closed “an exciting chapter” of her life (Prisoner 20).

After her release from Ravensbruck, she returned to her old life as a watchmaker, but experienced persistent “restlessness” (Hiding Place 232).  She began her travels, which she described in 1967 as an “adventurous life of dependence on the Lord” (qtd. in Life Lessons 165).  Her companion, Pamela Rosewell Moore, also found that their itinerant life “fulfilled my longing for adventure perfectly” (Silent 41).

Notice, though, what Ten Boom does not say.  She does not regard her 50 quiet years, before the Germans came, as deficient in some way; in fact, she was very fond of her family, their neighbors, and the life she led.  Much less does she call the lack of adventure a sin for which she must repent.

More importantly, when a period of adventure is brought to an end — first by imprisonment, and again, years later, by a stroke — she submits.  She trusts.  She seeks to honor God, even when she does not understand the path along which He leads her.  She resists the egoism in her and around her, giving, serving, loving.  After her stroke, Moore observed her closely:

I had not yet detected in my silent leader any attitude that balked at these strange new circumstances, although she sometimes seemed a little depressed.  What I did notice was a sweetness and patience in her spirit that were there to a more marked degree than I had ever seen before.  (Silent 113-14)

Even in this serious illness there was an inner tranquility that had not been disturbed.  We knew it was the Lord’s doing.  For His own reasons He was allowing a further testing of her faith, and she was going through it with Him.  (Silent 146-47)

Meditating on the silence of Jesus during His trial (Isaiah 53:7; Matthew 27:12-14; Luke 23:8-9; 1 Peter 2:23), Moore sees that Tante Corrie is being made like Him to a new degree:

He had been silent for her sake and mine.  And she had been silent, too.  Silent because she had to be, but silent also in the attitude of her will.  She had not protested.  (Silent 185)

And this leads to the third lesson:

3. God works in the place of “boredom” and suffering.

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5, NIV; Proverbs 3:34).  To prepare us for grace, God allows our pride to be stripped away, as Joseph’s brothers tear away his gaudy robe (Genesis 37:23). (20)  But this is not the end.  When humiliation has done its work, He removes the sackcloth of mourning and clothes us with joy (Psalm 30:11).

I doubt that Corrie ten Boom was ever particularly proud.  But even Jesus humbled Himself, laying aside His dignity (John 13:4), stripping or emptying Himself to serve (Philippians 2:5-8).  His grace is released, His power made perfect, when we follow Him on the path of weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

In the prisons much was stripped away from Ten Boom:

There was a constant feeling of helplessness.  We no longer had things under control.  (Prisoner 71)

But in her need she began to sound the depths of the faithfulness and the reality of God:

The blacker the night around us grew, the brighter and truer and more beautiful burned the word of God.  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .  Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”  [Romans 8:35, 37, KJV]

I would look about us as Betsie read, watching the light leap from face to face.  More than conquerors. . . .  It was not a wish.  It was a fact.  (Hiding Place 194-95)

Similarly, in the stillness following the stroke, the grace of God was working.  Tante Corrie had asked God for a new ministry (Silent 14), and she and her companions believed that His answer had come, bound up with suffering:

Had the Lord allowed her to come into this state of silence, helplessness, and utter dependence on Himself in order to show her more of His glory?  We became more sensitive to watch for God’s handiwork in this suffering, wondering how this seemingly endless situation was going to work out in conformity with His nature of goodness and love.  We thought of Tante Corrie’s attitude.  It was saying to us that although she did not like to suffer, seeing it had come to her, she was not fighting it.  She was accepting it, believing that somehow He was going to turn it into freedom and glory in His time.  Could it be that this mysterious time in her life was not only for her own sake, but for the sake of the people immediately around her and of those to whom she was reaching out?  (Silent 134)

Yes, Paul says, “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, RSV), but he says it two chapters after reminding us of Jesus pouring Himself out in service.  That is the One he lives and moves “in.”  And Jonathan says, “Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6, NIV); but Jonathan will lay down his own life so that God may save by David (1 Samuel 18:4; 23:17; 31:6).  There are mysteries here: some believers conquer kingdoms and some wander destitute; some are raised to life while others submit to death (Hebrews 11:33-38).  We are not to compare our lot with others’, nor to strive to prove ourselves by anyone’s developmental yardstick.  “What is that to you?” says Jesus.  “Follow Me” (John 21:22, RSV).

350 years ago, Blaise Pascal wrote about the spiritual state of “boredom” — a stripped-down awareness very much like the “constant feeling of helplessness” Corrie ten Boom knew during her imprisonments (Prisoner 71).  Pascal says that we will do anything to flee this awareness, to divert ourselves.  Above all, we crave the distraction of excitement:

. . . I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. . . .

Imagine any situation you like, add up all the blessings with which you could be endowed, to be king is still the finest thing in the world; yet if you imagine one with all the advantages of his rank, but no means of diversion, left to ponder and reflect on what he is, this limp felicity will not keep him going; he is bound to start thinking of all the threats facing him, of possible revolts, finally of inescapable death and disease, with the result that if he is deprived of so-called diversion he is unhappy, indeed more unhappy than the humblest of his subjects who can enjoy sport and diversion.

The only good thing for men therefore is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion.

That is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office are so popular.  It is not that they really bring happiness, nor that anyone imagines that true bliss comes from possessing the money to be won at gaming or the hare that is hunted: no one would take it as a gift.  What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.  That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture. . . .

All our life passes in this way: we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles, and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces.  We must get away from it and crave excitement.

We think either of present or of threatened miseries, and even if we felt quite safe on every side, boredom on its own account would not fail to emerge from the depths of our hearts, where it is naturally rooted, and poison our whole mind.

Man is so unhappy that he would be bored even if he had no cause for boredom, by the very nature of his temperament, and he is so vain that, though he has a thousand and one basic reasons for being bored, the slightest thing, like pushing a ball with a billiard cue, will be enough to divert him. . . .

A given man lives a life free from boredom by gambling a small sum every day.  Give him every morning the money he might win that day, but on condition that he does not gamble, and you will make him unhappy.  It might be argued that what he wants is the entertainment of gaming and not the winnings.  Make him play then for nothing; his interest will not be fired and he will become bored, so it is not just entertainment he wants.  A half-hearted entertainment without excitement will bore him.  He must have excitement, he must delude himself into imagining that he would be happy to win what he would not want as a gift if it meant giving up gambling. (21)

Transformation occurs when we stand in our “boredom” and emptiness and accept the truth of our condition: that we are helpless, powerless to save ourselves.  This is why I cannot agree with those who suggest that adventure is simply a positive attitude, and that Christians should cultivate a “spirit of adventure” no less than a “spirit of wonder.”  Wonder is truly an attitude — literally, a posture or position; we can choose to go through life looking for signs of God’s presence and traces of His handiwork — as Corrie ten Boom, in all her imprisonments, delighted in trees, flowers, sunrises, hummingbirds, the song of a lark.  But adventure is properly a genre, characterized by an eventful plot (often at the expense of character development) and by plenty of diverting danger and excitement.  The main character is usually a hero and always the center of attention.

In Scheveningen prison, Corrie ten Boom was tempted by a diversion.  She soon saw the deception that lurked in the mild excitement:

To escape boredom I learned to play solitaire.  What an innocent game it seemed to be!  I thought about Father, who had scruples against all card playing.  But he certainly could have nothing against this game.

After a few days, however, I understood the danger of even this apparently innocent game.  If the cards came out right our spirits soared, there was hope and confidence that our release would come soon; if not, our spirits sank into the depths.

What a lot of superstition everywhere! Fortune telling with cards was also a favorite pastime of many prisoners.  And they attached such great significance to the outcome.  (Prisoner 25)

If adventure could fairly be called an attitude, it might be described as a posture of being “ready for anything.”  And this is a snare for those who follow the One who “emptied Himself” (Philippians 2:7, RSV). (22)  For we may be called upon to be ready for nothing.

The Lowest Place

Eldredge, as we have seen, finds it natural and even commendable that people (or at least men) should ask, “Do I have what it takes?  Am I powerful?” (Wild 64).  We need to be tested — to test our mettle against others’ — and God Himself stands ready to lead us out into the arena (Wild 101-04).

After one has read this, the actual words of Jesus come as quite a shock:

When He noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, He told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.  If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’  Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.  But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’  Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Then Jesus said to His host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  (Luke 14:7-14, NIV)

In Jesus’ day, local social rankings were on public display every time someone threw a banquet.  The couches nearest the host were places of honor; any guest might claim them, but you ran the risk of — literally — being “put in your place.”  Your position at the table told you and everyone else exactly where you stood.  This sign of status was important both to Jews and Greeks: the Pharisees “love the place of honor at banquets” (Matthew 23:6, NIV), while:

The Greek writers refer to the absurd contentions which sometimes arose for the chief seats at table.  Theophrastus designates one who thrusts himself into the place next the host as mikrophilotimos, one who seeks petty distinctions. (23)

But Jesus turns this entire pecking order on its head:

  • Guests should vie for the lowest place, not the highest.  Why?  Because they trust the Host.  He is not looking for strivers and self-promoters, but for humility.  Peter echoes the thought: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time He may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6, RSV).  Both formulations are filled with hope: Jesus’ because we are still feasting on the abundance that is God’s presence (compare Psalm 36:8), Peter’s because we are submitting to the mighty hand of our Almighty God — the same hand that raised Jesus from death (1 Peter 1:21), indeed, the same hand that caught and held Peter when his faith faltered and he began to sink beneath the waves (Matthew 14:31).  Instead of asserting our value and struggling to prove it, we commit ourselves wholly to enjoying His presence, and we await His pleasure.
  • Hosts should invite, not the rich who can return the favor and make them guests of honor next time, but the poor — the destitute and despised — who in this life can never repay.  These hosts recognize that in the Kingdom “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30, NIV): some who have been powerless in this life, and esteemed of little account, will one day be in a position to welcome us into an eternal celebration (Luke 16:9). (24)

Jesus Himself is better than His word.  He does what is unthinkable, stepping clear off the hierarchy; He ceases for a time to be a guest with any place at the table, choosing to become a slave.  (Similarly, He does not stop at making Himself the most generous of hosts, but Himself becomes the Supper.)  He does not wait passively for the Father’s promotion, but busies Himself where He is, serving others.  The “emptying” thus continues over time; in the prophet’s words, “He poured out His life unto death” (Isaiah 53:12, Amplified, NIV).

When Jesus rises from His place as host and lowers Himself to wash His disciples’ feet, John emphasizes His full awareness:

. . . Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, . . .  Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, . . .  (John 13:1, 3, RSV)

He acts in hope, but also with a clear consciousness of every new indignity to which He is descending.

He comes to Peter — perhaps first of all the 12. (25)  No one could miss the impropriety of the Teacher, the Master, the King, the Lord girt with a towel and bearing a basin, but I suggest that it is the adventurer in Peter that reacts so strongly.  It is a small step from defensive egoism: “You shall never wash my feet!” (John 13:8, Amplified) — setting boundaries even as he appears to submit — to sheer bravado: “I will lay down my life for You” (verse 37).

It is easy to overlook the significance of this exchange.  Jesus tells Peter that he doesn’t need to be bathed, but only to have his feet washed; on the other hand, if he balks at this, he will have no part or portion in Jesus (John 13:8-10).  Eldredge believes that Christians (who have been washed) have good hearts; therefore, their “core desires” are clean and good.  Perhaps.  But we still have other desires that get us into trouble, and the Bible often speaks of these using the imagery of feet.  Our steps determine our way (Job 23:11; Psalm 119:133), and feet have a tendency to stray from the path and rush into sin (Proverbs 4:27; 1:15-16; Psalm 119:101).  Judas’s rebellion is described as lifting his heel against Jesus (John 13:18; Psalm 41:9).  Like priests at the Temple, resorting to the bronze basin (Exodus 30:17-21), we require frequent cleansings.  And as Peter’s example shows, a slight or “superficial” washing may bring to light deeper issues of the heart.

What does it mean to take the lowest place?  I am very far from wishing to write a how-to piece; but I pray, “Show me Your ways, O Lord, teach me Your paths” (Psalm 25:4, NIV), and His “most excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31, NIV) seems to lead precisely here.  Consider five distinct components:

Those who take the lowest place stop striving.

Hemmed in by God, burned and hammered by His words, the prophet Jeremiah offers this confession:

I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself,
that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.  (Jeremiah 10:23, RSV)

He relinquishes the illusion of control, of being William Wallace or the “main man” in his own story.  He turns his eye away from the seats of honor.

Peter tries ever so hard to turn the story of Jesus into the action movie Gladiator, to take up a sword and defend Him in the arena.  This is not God initiating him, but his own adventurous flesh, refusing to die.  When he fails, and when Jesus succeeds in reaching the lowest place of all, they are reunited.  The Lord who once washed Peter’s feet now feeds him, and makes this strange pronouncement:

I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.  (John 21:18, NIV)

Jesus is speaking of the manner of Peter’s death, but He also points to a larger truth.  Already, from this point on, Peter does not “direct his steps.”  His way is “in Christ,” following “in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

Perhaps we have all spurned the Lord’s “gently flowing waters,” only to be overwhelmed by the “mighty floodwaters” (Isaiah 8:6-8, NIV).  We need to allow Him to lead us again “beside the still and restful waters” (Psalm 23:2, Amplified).  Our God is filled with compassion and longs to be gracious, but we must come to Him in repentance and rest, quietness and trust (Isaiah 30:15, 18, NIV), not “speed [our own course] on horses” (Isaiah 30:16, Amplified).

The lowest place involves waiting on God.

Particularly in the Old Testament, “waiting” takes on many different shades of meaning.  Yahal means to wait with expectant hope, whereas qavah suggests the tension of a stretched-out cord; damam is a stilling or silencing. (26)  Often, too, “wait” is simply understood, and must be supplied in English.

Overall, I like John Piper’s description:

To wait!  That means to pause and soberly consider our own inadequacy and the Lord’s all-sufficiency, and to seek counsel and help from the Lord, and to hope in him (Psalm 33:20-22; Isaiah 8:17).  Israel is rebuked that “they did not wait for his counsel” (Psalm 106:13).  Why?  Because in not seeking and waiting for God’s help, they robbed God of an occasion to glorify himself.  (Desiring God 146)

In much Biblical waiting, there is a strong sense of utter dependence on God:

Be still [damam] before the Lord, and wait patiently [hul] for Him; . . . (Psalm 37:7, RSV, NIV).

Sometimes God draws us into an intimate isolation.  I have taken jobs in which I became “invisible” to others: people ceased to care what they said or how they behaved in front of me, because I was completely off their social scale.  This was good for me, but not if I continued to gaze at them and their rankings.  Rather, these were opportunities to learn to fix my eyes on God, fully alert, like a slave looking to the master’s hand (Psalm 123:1-2); both patient and eager, like a watchman straining to see the first sign of daybreak (Psalm 130:5-6).  However long it takes, I must be fully invested: “My eyes grow dim with waiting [yahal] for my God” (Psalm 69:3, RSV; compare 119:82).

As we wait in the lowest place, Jesus washes our ways and cleanses our desires.

Waiting does much to focus our longings and challenge our priorities.  And so, quite often, our gracious Host comes along to “demote” us from our hard-won honors, humiliating us and positioning us to receive grace.

This interim is often bleak and painful.  Hosea and his faithless wife Gomer must live together for many days, not as husband and wife but in a state of waiting (Hosea 3:3).  Presumably this is a time of healing and of gradually renewed affection.  It also serves as a picture of the relationship of the Lord and Israel during the Exile (verses 4-5).

Ultimately, the intimacy that develops through our waiting on God becomes a joy, Piper’s “feast” of worship (Desiring God 85).  One of Isaiah’s word pictures of the Day of the Lord is, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3, RSV, NIV).  Against Eldredge, we are not quickly done being saved; but God’s provision and presence become for us a bottomless fountain of delight.

Looking back on 40 years of wilderness wanderings, and before that on his own decades marking time as a shepherd, Moses has this to say about the process:

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.  (Deuteronomy 8:3, NIV)

There is a sharpening here, a learning to listen.  And in many way, the Israelites who entered Canaan under Joshua were the Old Testament’s greatest generation.

At the cleansing touch of Jesus, new desires rise in us.  We may become bolder. (27)  But we lose the immaturity of an action-movie hero.  Saul, who refuses to wait (1 Samuel 10:8; 13:8), remains a mere adventurer, and is rejected as king.

No, when the apostles and other believers “tarry” 10 days to be “clothed with power” (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4), and when Paul abandons the Pharisaic pecking order and, conferring with no man, goes off into Arabia (Galatians 1:16-17), the most striking outcome is the same:

We begin to desire the salvation of the lost and, compelled by that desire, we serve.

Elisabeth Elliot makes a remarkable and pertinent statement.  Writing of her husband Jim Elliot and his four missionary companions — Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Nate Saint, and Roger Youderian — who were martyred by Waodani or Auca people of Ecuador in 1956, she says:

Was it the thrill of adventure that drew our husbands on?  No.  Their letters and journals make it abundantly clear that these men did not go out as some men go out to shoot a lion or climb a mountain.  Their compulsion was from a different source. . . .  God’s command “Go ye, and preach the gospel to every creature” [see Mark 16:15, KJV] was the categorical imperative. (28)

How can she say this?  These were young men.  Jim Elliot was characterized by a romantic temperament (29) and a youthful desire for adventure (Shadow 31).  He routinely expressed such convictions as, “The Lord made mountains to climb, not just to look at” (Shadow 175), and he called climbing them “the life we were made for” (Shadow 150).  It was “the thrill of Jim’s lifetime” when he met, close up, a member of a people group who had never been told of Jesus (Shadow 245).

And yet, while Jim Elliot confessed to a restless energy (Shadow 141-42), he tempered it by meditating on Jesus’ years in a carpenter’s shop (Shadow 176).  He learned to wait (Shadow 100, 106-07).

When at last he felt released to go, his motives were well summed up in a Christmas letter by Nate Saint:

As we weigh the future and seek the will of God, does it seem right that we   should hazard our lives for just a few savages?  As we ask ourselves this question, we realize that it is not the call of the needy thousands, rather it is the simple intimation of the prophetic Word that there shall be some from every tribe in His presence in the last day and in our hearts we feel that it is pleasing to Him that we should interest ourselves in making an opening into the Auca prison for Christ.

As we have a high old time this Christmas, may we who know Christ hear the cry of the damned as they hurtle headlong into the Christless night without ever a chance.  May we be moved with compassion as our Lord was.  May we shed tears of repentance for these we have failed to bring out of darkness.  Beyond the smiling scenes of Bethlehem may we see the crushing agony of Golgotha.  May God give us a new vision of His will concerning the lost and our responsibility.  (December 18, 1955; qtd. in Gates, 177-78)

The lowest place of waiting becomes a lowly place of washing others’ feet.  So Corrie ten Boom, in the hospital at Ravensbruck, put to death her egoism by carrying bedpans to strangers (Hiding Place 224; Prisoner 156-57).  Decades later, weak and wordless after strokes, she could still serve and bless visitors, without embarrassment, because of “her lack of false pride” (Silent 150).

In the Church today, there is widespread confusion on this point.  The Identity Reveals Destiny curriculum from Dallas-based Gateway Church is a case in point.  It aims to assist believers in identifying their individual talents, spiritual gifts, and passions.  Apart from the dubious assumption that God, like modern psychology, is more interested in developing strengths than in fixing weaknesses, (30) this provides a useful service.  But the authors go too far when they appeal to the “Law of Pinnacle Attraction”: the idea that it is the best in us that most influences others and draws them to Christ. (31)  In fact, the combination of our weakness and the love of Christ is far more powerful.  Jesus’ enemies were enraged by His teachings and miracles, but deeply moved when they saw Him weep at Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:36).  Paul speaks of triumph and “manifesting” Christ, not when he is most eloquent, but when suffering love — anxiety over his rebellious converts — prevents him from opening his mouth (2 Corinthians 2:12-14).

But the real surprise in the Gateway curriculum appears in the Leader’s Guide, (32) on a final page appended as a “closing admonition”:

Are we serving for the benefit of the Body or for our own self-fulfillment?

Sometimes the need for a servant is greater than my need to use a specific gift or skill.

Serving in our local church is not meant to meet our needs for self-fulfillment or self-worth.  We don’t go to church to “find ourselves.”  Or if we do, we learn the only way to find our lives is to first lose them.  That’s the whole picking up our cross & following thing.

Sometimes the need for a servant is greater than my need to use a specific gift.  When you are part of a body that loves & serves & gives a beautiful bond forms.  You see the service of joy in others & you want to follow suit.  You see a need & you long to fill it.

It’s not about self-fulfillment, it is about the joy found through self-denial.  Phil 2:7 tells us Christ “took on the form of a servant” for us.  He freed us from trying to one-up each other.  He freed us to rest in the knowledge that our service does not earn our salvation.

We love because we have been loved & we serve because we have been served.

This is well said, but serving in love cannot be an afterthought, tacked on to the end of programs about self-fulfillment and maximizing our influence.  Jesus “emptied” Himself.  No disciple may aim higher.

We adopt the lowest place in our very thinking.

In the end, there is something more fundamental at stake than whether we see ourselves as adventurers or as demoted strivers waiting on God, as fulfilling or emptying our selves.  For the sake of Christian unity, Paul challenges us: “Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10, NIV).  One commentator softens this to, Lead the way in showing the honor that is due to all. (33)  That seems to let us off the hook a little, until we meet with these words:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  (Philippians 2:3, NIV)

Paul himself takes this quite literally.  Although he confronts Peter and rebukes those who fall into error, he describes himself as “less than the least of all God’s people” (Ephesians 3:8, NIV).

If this is not the lowest place, it is an important stepping stone toward it.  So let me close by acknowledging that John Eldredge, Mark Batterson, the Gateway curriculum authors, and the preacher who summoned me to adventure are all better Christians than I am.  Today we are quick to accuse others of preaching a false gospel, but what I have called the Adventure Gospel is at worst a misplaced emphasis.  All teachers of the Word make mistakes (James 3:1-2), and God is well able to supply correction (Philippians 3:15) and make His servants stand (Romans 14:4).  These guides have washed the feet of God’s people, and they should be honored.
(1) John Eldredge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (2001), rev. ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 7.  Hereafter cited in the text as Wild.

(2) John Eldredge, Desire: The Journey We Must Take to Find the Life God Offers (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 64.  Originally published as The Journey of Desire: Searching for the Life We’ve Only Dreamed Of (2000).  Hereafter cited in the text as Desire.

(3) Mark Batterson and Richard Foth with Susanna Foth Aughtmon, A Trip around the Sun: Turning Your Everyday Life into the Adventure of a Lifetime (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), 26.  Hereafter cited in the text as Trip.  Batterson’s co-author, Richard Foth, suggests that some adventures may be internal and contemplative (Trip 22, 140).

(4) The phrase is actually Nietzsche’s (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil [1886], tr. Helen Zimmern [London, 1907], sec. 188).  Peterson comments that Nietzsche “saw this area of spiritual truth at least with great clarity” (Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society [1980], 20th anniversary ed. [Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity, 2000], 17).  Hereafter cited in the text as Obedience.

(5) “If the Lord delights in a man’s way, He makes his steps firm,” writes the psalmist (Psalm 37:23, NIV).  But the context supplies the conditions for God’s delight: this man has committed his way to the Lord (verse 5); he continues to “wait for the Lord and keep His way” (verse 34, NIV).

(6) Mark Batterson, Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2009), 107: “By definition, a disciple is someone who never stops learning. . . .  A true disciple is consumed with holy curiosity that doesn’t take yes for an answer.”  Hereafter cited in the text as Primal.

(7) On this see Douglas W. Frank, Less Than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans, 1986), 266-70.  Hereafter cited in the text as Conquerors.

(8) Robert Mounce, note on Galatians 5:25, in Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1985), 1787.

(9) John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (1986), 10th anniversary expanded ed. (Sisters, OR.: Multnomah, 1996), 66-70.  Hereafter cited in the text as Desiring God.  I am not prepared to agree with Piper in all particulars.  His metaphor of two lenses (again drawn from Edwards) proposes that God is angry or grieved over sin and evil when He looks at the world through His narrow lens, but still delights in the big picture seen through His wide-angle lens (Desiring God 40).  This seems to me to reduce many prized expressions of the heart of God — His refusal to give up on Israel in Hosea, Jesus’ tears over Jerusalem or outrage at the tomb of Lazarus, and even the anguish of Gethsemane — to a mere parenthesis, a temporary loss of focus or perspective, and all for the sake of theological neatness.  I’m not really wild about any metaphor that begins with God “looking at” the world; the God of Scripture is far more involved in His creation than that.

(10) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (1938), tr. John W. Doberstein (1954; New York: HarperOne-HarperCollins, n.d.), 26.

(11) This heading is a deliberate echo of Robert S. McGee’s fine book The Search for Significance (2nd ed. 1990), rev. and expanded ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998, 2003).  Hereafter cited in the text as Search.  McGee addresses the feeling that “we must continually prove ourselves to others” (7).  Unlike Eldredge (Wild 47-50, 64, 101-04), McGee doesn’t respond by suggesting that God will initiate us so that we can prove ourselves.  Instead, he finds in justification “a secure self-worth totally apart from our ability to perform” (Search 42), and he sketches a Christian life that is not merely “like Christ” but “in Christ”:

We are to put on, or envelop ourselves in, this new self that progressively expresses Christian character in our attitudes and behavior.  We are marvelously unique, created to reflect the character of Christ through our individual personalities and behavior.  In a different and special way, each believer has the capability to shine forth the light of God.  No two will reflect light in exactly the same way.  (Search 107-08)

(12) John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Old Tappan, N.J.: Spire-Fleming H. Revell, 1972), 14-18.  Hereafter cited in the text as Progress.

(13) Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1908), 84, 78.  See the Christian Classics Ethereal Library online edition at Hereafter cited in the text as Orthodoxy.

(14) William T. Ellis, Billy Sunday: The Man and His Message (Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1914), 204; qtd. in Conquerors, 193.

(15) Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, The Hiding Place (1971; Toronto and New York: Bantam, 1974, 1985), 201, 217, 234.  Hereafter cited in the text as Hiding Place.

(16) Corrie ten Boom, A Prisoner and Yet . . . (1945; Eng. tr. 1954; Fort Washington, PA.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1970, 1989), 47.  Hereafter cited in the text as Prisoner.  See the helpful chronology of Ten Boom’s life in Pam Rosewell Moore, Life Lessons from the Hiding Place: Discovering the Heart of Corrie ten Boom (Grand Rapids, MI.: Chosen-Baker, 2004, 2005), especially 211-20.  Hereafter cited in the text as Life Lessons.

(17) Corrie ten Boom with Jamie Buckingham, Tramp for the Lord (Fort Washington, PA.: Christian Literature Crusade and Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1974), 140.  Hereafter cited in the text as Tramp.

(18) Pamela Rosewell Moore, The Five Silent Years of Corrie ten Boom (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan-HarperCollins, 1986), 108.  Hereafter cited in the text as Silent.

(19) Some of the counsel of Al-Anon — to detach, and to practice self-care — seems to border on this egoism.  See, for instance, How Al-Anon Works for Families and Friends of Alcoholics (Virginia Beach, VA.: Al-Anon Family Groups, 1995, 2008), 82-92.  I find it helpful to remember that the program supports drained caregivers, and also that in time it leads back to service.  But Ten Boom’s account illustrates how spiritually damaging, and how wrong, well-intentioned slogans and advice can be.

(20) William Barclay points out in New Testament Words (1964; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1974), 247-49, that “poor” in the New Testament — the poor to whom Jesus is sent (Matthew 11:5; Luke 4:18), the poor in spirit who are blessed (Matthew 5:3) — is the Greek word ptochos, which means utterly destitute and wholly dependent on God.

(21) Blaise Pascal, Pensees (1670), tr. A.J. Krailsheimer (1966; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), #136, 67-70.

(22) J.I. Packer defends this as the literal translation, and also argues that there is here no reduction of His deity, but rather the willing restraint of some divine capacities, as Jesus submits entirely to His Father’s will in moment-by-moment dependence.  See J.I. Packer, Knowing God (1973; Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity, 1975), 51-55.

(23) Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 2nd ed., 1888 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.), 1:379; emphasis in original.

(24) The banquets, as described by Jesus, express all four of the false beliefs discussed in Search (see, for example, 26).  The striving guests must meet certain standards in order to feel good about themselves; they depend on the approval of others; when exposed, they are crushed by shame.  Both guests and the host judge others harshly, responding to failure (or even overreaching) with blame and punishment.  Jesus models a different system, based on grace.

(25) See the discussion in Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883, 1886), new updated ed. (1993; n.p.: Hendrickson, 2012), 815-19.

(26) Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1907), rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 403-04, 875, 198-99.

(27) Thus far I agree with Francis Frangipane, This Day We Fight!: Breaking the Bondage of a Passive Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI.: Chosen-Baker, 2005, 2006): as suggested in Isaiah 61:3, we may have to contend against a spirit of heaviness or fainting or passivity (57).

(28) Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (1957; Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson, 2011), 176-77.  Hereafter cited in the text as Gates.

(29) Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot (New York: Harper, 1958), 129.  Hereafter cited in the text as Shadow.

(30) Allan Kelsey and Brad Stahl, ID: Identity Reveals Destiny (Grapevine, TX: Gateway Create, 2013, 2014, 2015), 57-58.

(31) Allan Kelsey and Brad Stahl, ID: Your Destiny Revealed (Southlake, TX: Gateway Create, 2013, 2015).  This is the accompanying video series on DVD.

(32) An undated binder.

(33) Vincent, 3:159.


Jonathan Haidt and the Possibility of Moral Instruction

In The Righteous Mind (2012) and The Happiness Hypothesis (2006),(1) social psychologist Jonathan Haidt goes to the heart of today’s polarized, profoundly unsatisfying disputes over right and wrong, justice, and fairness. He argues that we become so obstinate and so heated because none of us possesses a reasoned morality. Rather, we take up intuitive positions, and only then does our reason come in, to justify and defend our gut commitments.

Haidt proposes six foundational moral intuitions: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. In The Righteous Mind, he suggests that each of these evolved in response to a particular adaptive challenge facing human social groups. In this review, I focus almost entirely on his discussion of the sixth foundation, sanctity.

A Reductive View of Religion

First, it should be said that Haidt extends a rather large olive branch to religious people. Although he describes himself as “a Jewish atheist” (HH 183), he contends (against such New Atheists as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) that religions have been adaptive — for groups, not individuals, increasing trustworthiness and cooperation (RM 255-73). Religions may be primitive “moral exoskeletons” (RM 269), but it’s not yet clear that societies can thrive without them.

This qualified acceptance of religion slips a bit when Haidt considers origins. He acknowledges that such an undertaking is more speculation than science:

I didn’t want to make the classic mistake of amateur evolutionary theorists, which is to pick a trait and then ask: “Can I think of a story about how this trait might once have been adaptive?” The answer to that question is almost always yes because reasoning can take you wherever you want to go. (RM 122)

Yet to understand sanctity and religion, Haidt starts with the emotion of disgust; then, groping in the opposite direction, he discovers a vague “uplift” or “elevation” (HH 185-199; RM 13, 146-53), which he equates with agape love and the Holy Spirit (HH 199). Add in vastness and beauty, and one can even speak of “awe” and “transcendence” (HH 200-06; RM 227-28), emotions illustrated in both books by quotations from Emerson and Darwin responding to nature.

This is a good try, and a well-intentioned one, but I suspect that any religious person must feel let down by so thin an account of religious experience. Scientists are inclined to believe that the most economical explanation of any phenomenon must be the best one. If you come home and find your windows broken, it makes sense to think first of vandalism. But if you don’t find any brickbats, you might at least consider the possibility of an earthquake — especially if there are old records of a fault line running through the neighborhood.

Is any other account of religion possible for the scientist or social scientist? It is if we look back to an old but influential book. In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto finds at the core of religious experience a Presence that he calls “the numinous.” It is felt as awful and overpoweringly majestic, raising in us the consciousness that we are but creatures; at the same time, it is attractive and fascinating, desired and sought for its own sake. (2). Primitive religion does make much of disgust, loathing, uncleanness, and impurity (122-24), but, says Otto, these of themselves could never give rise to religion and the sacred; rather, they can only be explained on the basis of the numinous (124, 132-35). The daunting aspect of the numinous becomes moralized as justice (Haidt’s “liberty” and “fairness”), and the alluring aspect as love (Haidt’s “care”) (140).

We can see this, at times, when the Bible speaks of what is loathsome and impure. It is after the Lord speaks out of the whirlwind that Job says, “I am of small account and vile” (Job 40:4, Amplified; Hebrew qalal: light, trifling, contemptible, cursed) (3) and, later, “I despise [Hebrew maas] myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6, NIV). Isaiah wishes that the Lord would come down to earth as long ago, blazing like fire, doing awesome deeds, making mountains and nations tremble (Isaiah 64:1-3). But His present anger is worse; He hides His face.

How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean [Hebrew tame],
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:5-6, NIV)

There is an echo here of Isaiah 6:5, when the prophet has seen the holy Lord:

Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone and ruined [Hebrew damah: also destroyed, cut off], (4) because I am a man of unclean [Hebrew tame] lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean [Hebrew tame] lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! (Amplified)

Sanctity does not begin with feelings of disgust and repugnance, which by reaction find their way to uplift and elevation. Rather, sanctity appears whenever the Holy makes itself known, and the disgust that (among many other emotions) results is first of all a revulsion at aspects of oneself.

I am not sure whether there is anything “adaptive” about so shattering an encounter. But it lies at the root of all religion and all specifically religious morality. Haidt is convinced that psychology can improve on ancient wisdom (HH xi, xiii, 109), but, without the Holy, all of us — social scientists or not — are like the prisoners in Plato’s Cave, (5) gazing at shadows. Job and Isaiah have seen the Sun.

On Learning and Teaching Morality

Still, Haidt has much to teach religious people, particularly in his insistence that morality has a non-rational basis in our intuitions. We know too well the frustration of being drawn into arguments over choices and behaviors, self-evidently wrong to us, but just as self-evidently right or neutral to others. Reason and persuasion can accomplish little, and these exchanges usually end with the religious people calling their neighbors immoral (or worse), and the neighbors calling the religious people close-minded and intolerant (or worse).

Haidt argues that these divisions persist because of different orientations toward the foundational moral intuitions. Conservatives value all six more or less equally, but liberals emphasize care and liberty, while libertarians build almost exclusively on liberty (RM 295-309).

Can’t we change? Can’t we listen to and learn from one another? In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt takes the position that one must change one’s “repertoire of available thoughts” — and that willpower won’t accomplish this. He discusses three effective methods: meditation, which can “change automatic thought processes”; cognitive therapy, Aaron Beck’s deliberate challenging of negative thoughts; and Prozac, which works rather mysteriously to transform personalities (35-44). In The Righteous Mind, he takes a different approach, acknowledging that other people influence us and cause us to change our intuitions and judgments, both through reasoning (which may trigger new intuitions for us) and simply by expressing their preferences. Private reflection, my ability to change my own judgments, he believes to have a much lower success rate (46-49).

This is a big shift in books written six years apart, and Haidt doesn’t account for it. But even his later view offers little support for traditional moral instruction. Our moral intuitions and judgments, he says, are not shaped or changed by lectures on moral principles, nor by stories of virtue rewarded and vice punished, nor even — more surprisingly — by role models and good examples. There must be interaction, a dialogue; it is another’s response to my intuitions that has the power to challenge and change me.

I submit that there is some truth in this, truth that churches and Christians should not ignore. By and large, we do not succeed in persuading others through our moral reasoning. The lives we intend as exemplary strike others as priggish and self-righteous, lived inside a sanctimonious bubble. We are much better at lecturing than at listening and responding. We are not regarded as wise, but as inflexible.

If we devoted ourselves to the pursuit of Biblical wisdom, it might change us, both in some ways that Haidt discusses and in some that are not on his radar at all. Here, I will touch on five aspects of Biblical wisdom.

1. The Fear of God

Again and again, the Bible emphasizes a theme stated most memorably in Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (RSV).(6)

When we read this verse, we tend to interpret “fear” as “reverence,” but we run the risk of diluting the Biblical meaning. Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1971) defines “reverence” as “profound adoring awed respect,” but the fact remains that I can revere Shakespeare. The fear of God comes closer to Otto’s sense of creature-consciousness in the face of overwhelming majesty. In the Presence of the Holy One, I am not merely hushed and respectful; I am shaken and very nearly annihilated.

This fear does not lead directly or logically to a set of moral principles and behaviors. In Scripture, it is only because God Almighty chooses to make His ways known that we have commandments and statutes; apart from this, we are left dependent on the moment-by-moment revelation of His will, and might like Abraham be called to sacrifice a child (Genesis 22). Initially, the Presence of the Holy One has a wholly negative force, morally speaking: it stops us in our tracks.

We see this in the account of a pagan king, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It begins when he has a dream that terrifies him (Daniel 4:5): a “holy one” warns that he will be stripped, scattered, his mind changed “so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone He wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men” (4:17, NIV). The prophet Daniel, who is also terrified by the dream (4:19), urges the king to respond with a thorough reformation in moral behavior: “break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your tranquility” (4:27, RSV).

We are not told whether Nebuchadnezzar pays any heed to these words. But 12 months later, the warning is fulfilled when he privately claims for himself the glory that belongs to God. He endures a period of helpless madness. When his sanity is abruptly restored,

I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified Him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; . . . All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as He pleases . . . Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of Heaven, because everything He does is right and all His ways are just. And those who walk in pride He is able to humble. (4:34-35, 37, NIV)

The story ends here. It is complete with the acknowledgment, the heartfelt surrender before the Most High. It doesn’t require (what we so often insist upon) a consequent, Ebenezer-Scrooge-like life of good works. So too, in Psalm 49, the “words of wisdom” that “give understanding” (verse 3) are largely a recognition that all men must die: something to halt us, not to direct our steps.

2. The Problem of Holiness

Fear stops us cold; then it wants to move in, set up shop in our lives. The problem at the center of Israel’s calling is first presented to Moses as a living riddle. How can a bush — dry and wooden, considered little more than fuel — burn and not be consumed? (Exodus 3:2). Even so, how can the incandescently holy God dwell in the midst of people — frail and fallen, bent on sinning, mortal as dust — and not destroy them? In times of judgment, this is the cry of every heart: “He has burned in Jacob like a flaming fire that consumes everything around it” (Lamentations 2:3, NIV). “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire?” (Isaiah 33:14, NIV).

After the incident of the golden calf, the Lord offers Moses and the Israelites a strange proposition: He will send an angel to guide them into the promised land, and He will drive out every rival; “but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you” (Exodus 33:3, RSV). It is the one safe course, and yet the people mourn, and Moses pleads, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here,” from the wilderness (33:15, NIV). This is the attractive quality of the Holy One. Even when Moses and all his generation except for two men do in fact die, “consumed by Your anger” (Psalm 90:7, NIV), he doesn’t regret the decision; looking back over their walk with the Lord, he exclaims, “Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of?” (Deuteronomy 4:32, NIV).

This is the paradox of knowing, grounded in the One who is real, and of being so known as to be almost obliterated. His servants “delight in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3, NIV; compare Nehemiah 1:11; Psalm 112:1). Even rebellious kings are enjoined, “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11, NIV), for His Presence is “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).

Our fear of the Lord extends to His words (Psalm 119:120) — not rules taught by men (Isaiah 29:13), but whatever declares His ways, helping us to hate and shun evil (Proverbs 8:13; 3:7; Job 1:1, 8), the wildness that seeks to live apart from Him. So our fear deepens because He is Just (Job 37:23-24), because He is forgiving (Psalm 130:4), because He keeps promises (Psalm 119:38), because He is not arbitrary and implacable. Fear leads to trust (Exodus 14:31; Psalm 115:11).

Of course the burning bush points to Jesus, in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9, NIV). The blazing fire in Him illumines and heals instead of destroying, and cannot be quenched even by death. The news of His rising awakens “fear and great joy” (Matthew 28:8). The New Testament, no less than the Old, is permeated with the fear of God (e.g., Acts 9:31; 2 Corinthians 5:11; 7:1; 1 Peter 1:17). It is not a fear of punishment (1 John 4:18) — any more than, as Satan charged, it is a self-seeking servility (Job 1:9) — but it continues to tremble at His word (Philippians 2:12; Ephesians 6:5).

Truly to fear Him requires a changed heart: “. . . give me an undivided heart that I may fear Your name” (Psalm 86:11, NIV; compare Jeremiah 32:29). This leads to a thoroughgoing transformation, summed up in the calling, “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2, RSV; compare 20:7; 1 Peter 1:15-16). We may even become fearsome to animals (Genesis 9:2) and to others (Genesis 35:5; Psalm 105:38; Deuteronomy 2:25; Esther 8:17).

3. The Wisdom from Above

Nebuchadnezzar goes out of his mind, while Moses, because of a hissy fit, is denied entry to the promised land; yet both affirm, not merely that the Most High God has the right to do what He pleases, but that what He does is right:

He is the Rock, His works are perfect, and all His ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is He. (Deuteronomy 32:4, NIV)

Over time, those who know God come to see that, though His ways frequently astonish, ultimately they are good. He binds Himself to His creation, keeps promises, shows steadfast love. So, in the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom personified speaks as His first creation, the foundation of all that He has made and done:

The Lord created me at the beginning of His work, the first of His acts of old. . . . I was beside Him, like a master workman; and I was daily His delight, rejoicing before Him always, rejoicing in His inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men. (8:22, 30-31, RSV)

The words of God come with power, “making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7; compare 119:98-99). In its opening invitation, the Book of Proverbs expands upon these benefits: wisdom brings prudence, discretion, discernment, a disciplined life, and power to do “what is right and just and fair” (1:2-6, NIV). But the first step is one of correction; Wisdom says, “If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you . . .” (1:23, NIV).

Who wouldn’t want to be the confidant of God? Always, though, this comes at a steep price. No less than Nebuchadnezzar, we must turn from madness and surrender our lives. Throughout Scripture, God the Holy One confounds all human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:19-20, quoting Isaiah 29:14; compare 1 Corinthians 3:18-20). No one is more to be pitied than the man “wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:12). When Jesus rejoices that the Father has hidden the truths of salvation “from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10:21; Matthew 11:25, NIV), He is fleshing out Proverbs 11:2: “with humility comes wisdom” (NIV).

If humility invites wisdom, wisdom produces further humility (James 3:13). James offers a stark contrast between a so-called wisdom that is earthly and even demonic, characterized by jealous desire and ambitious self-promotion, and the heavenly wisdom that “is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, fully of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:14-17, NIV). It is not intellectual mastery so much as a standing in the Presence, and then, like the Fire that desires to come near without consuming, a bearing with. As Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1, NIV).

4. Written on the Heart

Do we, then, not know what is right? Paul’s answer is that we know and don’t know. Rebellion darkens our minds (Romans 1:21) and sears or corrupts our consciences (1 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:15). Only as we come to know God can we learn His ways and walk in them.

Precisely here, Haidt misunderstands the Bible. He believes that the Biblical writers hold what he calls the “nativist” position on the origins of morality: “that moral knowledge is native in our minds. It comes preloaded . . . in our God-inscribed hearts” (RM 5). In support he quotes Jeremiah 31:33: “I will put My law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (RM 324n.). But, of course, Jeremiah is not talking about a preloading; he is describing a new work that God will do to change existing minds and hearts. Compare Ezekiel’s promise: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees and be careful to keep My laws” (Ezekiel 36:26-27, NIV).

In fact, the Bible doesn’t fit any of Haidt’s schools of thought on the origins of morality: nativist (innate), empiricist (from experience), rationalist (self-constructed), or his own view, combining innateness with social learning (RM 5, 26). Biblical wisdom is learned through a process of renewal. The Holy Spirit becomes our teacher (John 16:12-15; 1 John 2:27), using the Scriptures to make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15, NIV). The interaction that challenges my moral intuitions is first of all a dialogue with God.

Perhaps for some people these exchanges are like the moral discourses of Proverbs: a Father earnestly laboring to inoculate the next generation against both waywardness and snares. For some, they may add up to a comprehensive set of moral rules and principles, a Torah or way, as Moses describes:

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, . . . Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6, NIV)

Even in the Old Testament, though, the way is much more than a code of laws. As Haidt says, ancient wisdom relies less on rationalistic logic than on evocative maxims and role models that address our emotional, intuitive side (HH 159-60). The Bible is filled with narratives, parables, riddles. But a listing of genres still doesn’t do justice to the richness of the Biblical conversation between God and humanity.

In the Book of Hosea, the prophet’s marital woes usher us into a revelation of the heart of God. Like a jealous husband, He takes us on an emotional journey, marked by sharp turns and sudden outbursts. He no longer loves Israel; He has always loved her and cannot now give her up. The Israelites are no longer His people; they will always be His people, and He will redeem them. He will scatter them to the winds; He will plant them and create a fruitful vine. And when this emotional roller coaster shudders to a stop, the last words of the book are these:

Who is wise? He will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them. The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them. (Hosea 14:9, NIV)

This book resists summary and systematization. We just have to read it, again and again. It’s as if God has set aside Proverbs 1:23, and, although we have not heeded His rebuke, has poured out His heart to us anyway. Wisdom and discernment grow in us as we share this journey with Him. We feel, ever so dimly, His pain, His hope, His love; and all the while, His ways are being written on our hearts.

5. Walking with the Wise

Yet there is also, in the Bible, a form of social learning. God in His kindness gives us wise and godly people, at least a few of them, though we may have to seek them out and attach ourselves to them. “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20, NIV). I take it that this “walk” is less a matter of formal instruction, and even of words, than most of us would prefer. It is especially an opportunity to observe another’s journey through life: how he or she handles people, responds to disappointment and injustice, spends time, makes choices, fears and loves God. Remembering such mentors, we “[c]onsider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith,” knowing that Jesus — their Lord and ours — doesn’t change with times and circumstances (Hebrews 13:7-8, NIV). They are not perfect but, as members of Christ’s Body, they make some of His ways visible to us: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NIV, and often).

Sometimes these relationships involve conflict and confrontation, and some of our most effective teachers are difficult people. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, NIV). This is a slow, painful, rasping and grinding process. I may need to receive correction (Proverbs 15:31, and often), or the other may just grate on my nerves, my pride, my willful self-sufficiency.

Ultimately, we must learn from one another because we are being fitted together into one Body, working cooperatively to reveal God’s “manifold wisdom” (Ephesians 3:10). Our wisdom is corporate, springing up as we meet to worship and serve. The “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 2:7, RSV) is made known in this, that together “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16, emphasis added).

Where Then Is Wisdom?

More than 50 years ago, Watchman Nee wrote:

Nothing has done greater damage to our Christian testimony than our trying to be right and demanding right of others. We become preoccupied with what is and what is not right. We ask ourselves, Have we been justly or unjustly treated? and we think thus to vindicate our actions. But that is not our standard. The whole question for us is one of cross-bearing. You ask me, “Is it right for someone to strike my cheek?” I reply, “Of course not! But the question is, do you only want to be right?” As Christians our standard of living can never be “right or wrong,” but the Cross.(7)

Haidt reminds us how much we focus on moral behavior (our own and others’), and how much we rely on formal, verbal moral instruction to shape it. A better and more Biblical course would be to pursue wisdom.

Wisdom is a paradox. Like all gifts of the Spirit, it often seems to benefit everyone except the recipient. If one tries to grasp and hold it, it evaporates. It must be received afresh every day, in each new situation. When the manna from heaven was stored, “it bred worms, became foul, and stank” (Exodus 16:20, Amplified); the same thing generally happens when, apart from the Spirit’s prompting, we take the word or example that “worked” in one context and mechanically try to apply it in another. It must be worn lightly, for God is ever choosing the least likely person in the room to administer correction or deliverance.

Wisdom is standing in the Presence of the Holy One in fear and trembling. It is the humility that comes from acknowledging that one has lived long in a darkened madness, with the mind of an animal. It is the Cross, and dying, and being raised to serve within a corporate Body.

In the end, we acknowledge that Jesus Christ is our only wisdom — “that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30, NIV). He declares us just and washes away our uncleanness; He leads us through the valley of sanctification; He will deliver us from every trace of bondage and decay. He is all we have, and all we need.

(1) Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic-Perseus, 2006); Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon-Random House, 2012). In the citations that follow, I will abbreviate these works as HH and RM.
(2) Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational (1917), transl. John W. Harvey (1923), 2nd ed. (1950; Oxford: Oxford UP, 1958), 8-32.
(3) Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1907), rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 886; Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 53.
(4) Brown, Driver, Briggs, 198.
(5) Republic, Book 7.
(6) Compare Proverbs 1:7; 3:7; 14:16; 15:33; Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Micah 6:9. In Proverbs 30:3, Agur confesses that he is deficient wisdom because he lacks (adequate) knowledge of the Holy One.
(7) Watchman Nee, Sit, Walk, Stand (1957, 4th ed. 1962; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), 20; emphasis in original.

“Radical”: Two and a Half Caveats

David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (1) is admirable in its intentions. And the book is bold in challenging American Christians’ complacency and love of comforts. Perhaps the fact that I found myself arguing, on almost every page, testifies to the effectiveness of Platt’s presentation. Still, I object to his articulation of Biblical priorities and a Biblical program at three main points.

Issue 1: What Does Radical Abandonment to Jesus Look Like?

This is the “half” caveat. I commend Radical for insisting that we cannot have Christ and self-fulfillment. Yet somehow, as I read it, the emphasis seemed to fall on all the wrong notes. To be blunt, there is a great deal in the book about what one must abandon in order to follow Christ, and much less about the Christ who calls.

I can demonstrate this best by contrasting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approach in the opening chapters of his classic work The Cost of Discipleship.(2) Bonhoeffer takes up, in turn, four Gospel texts, each of which issues a challenge, and each of which reveals Christ.(3)

  1. Jesus’ call to Levi in Mark 2:14 is simply, “Follow me” (COD 57); in Mark 1:17 and John 21:22, He issues the same call to Peter (45). This word “gives us no intelligible program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after” (58). There is only Jesus: “When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person” (59). His call is always this stark and this uncompromising.
  2. In Luke 9:57-62, after Jesus has resolutely set out for Jerusalem and the Cross, He converses briefly with three would-be disciples, none of whom ends up following Him. Because Jesus is God incarnate, He is able to speak a word that is a call, a word that makes faith possible. But faith must obey (60-63).
  3. Similarly, when the rich young man approaches Him with an academic question (Matthew 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-31), Jesus challenges him to make an irrevocable break with his present life, and to embrace “adherence to the person of Jesus Christ and fellowship with him.” He calls him to “spontaneous obedience” (70-76, 84-85).
  4. These passages prepare us for Mark 8:31-38, the invitation to take up our cross and follow Jesus. He “is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection,” and we must join Him there: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The specifics are different for each of us; indeed, the call makes us individuals: “Every man is called separately, and must follow alone” (86-94).

Platt, who cites Bonhoeffer (Radical 14), quotes the same four passages (7-11). But he takes them in a different order, and passes quickly from one to another. Because he is concerned about American materialism, he spends the most time on the rich young man, even though eventually he must admit that Jesus’ words on this occasion are not a literal command for everyone (119-20). In an impatient and distracted age, it is tempting to be more concise than Bonhoeffer, but the difference is striking. In The Cost of Discipleship, we meet a suffering and majestic Christ, who makes His way to each of us to speak an empowering word, a call that is personal and different for every hearer. We hear Him call others, and consider; at last, inescapably, He calls to me. In Radical, we go quickly to the bottom line: we read about abandoning everything and “risking it all.”

Another way of stating this is to recall a point made well by Watchman Nee: that Christians must sit, rest, before they can walk. “For Christianity begins not with a big DO, but with a big DONE. Thus Ephesians opens with the statement that God has ‘blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ’ (1:3) and we are invited at the very outset to sit down and enjoy what God has done for us; not to set out to try and attain it for ourselves.”(4)

Bonhoeffer sees this: “Discipleship is bound to Christ as the Mediator, and where it is properly understood, it necessarily implies faith in the Son of God as the Mediator. Only the Mediator, the God-Man, can call men to follow him” (COD 59). Though it may seem paradoxical, though it may occur in a moment of time, the resting of faith precedes the step of following. And the resting of faith may entail a certain amount of letting go.

But Platt does not dwell on the Christ who calls. His discipleship has no sitting and resting, only walking and striving.

There is a tension in Bonhoeffer: although Christ’s call makes one an individual, “It is impossible to become a new man as a solitary individual” (COD 242). One must become a member of Christ’s Body, the Church. (And so Bonhoeffer would go on to write Life Together.) With his less individuated call, Platt might have more to say about corporate discipleship, right from the start. Yet, as we shall see, he presents, not so much a Body in which diverse members work together, but a likeminded fellowship in which individuals march in lockstep. Even his closing challenge, the Radical Experiment, asks one to decide how to give and where to serve before committing to a church (Radical 218-19).

Issue 2: Does God Exalt Our Inability?

Again, I am in sympathy with the main thrust of Radical’s third chapter: that believers must depend on the power of God instead of trusting in our own wisdom, strength, and resources. Jonathan Edwards placed a great emphasis on the Christian’s (and the creature’s) “absolute dependence” on God; this doctrine was a cornerstone of his theology, his preaching, and his devotional life.(5)

Unfortunately, Platt shapes his discussion as a response to a definition of the American dream by James Truslow Adams, which, paraphrased, assumes that “our greatest asset is our ability” (46). So the chapter’s thesis becomes: “In direct contradiction to the American dream, God actually delights in exalting our inability” (47).

In fact, God delights in exalting human weakness; as He says to Paul, His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Some weaknesses are inabilities, but many are not — the youth of Samuel and Jeremiah and Timothy, Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the lowly status of the shepherds who were witnesses to the Incarnation and of the women who were witnesses to the Resurrection, and Christ’s offensive death (“crucified in weakness,” 2 Corinthians 13:4) are all examples of Biblical weakness. Weakness can coexist with great ability; the same Paul who rejoices that God chooses the foolish and weak and lowly (1 Corinthians 1:27-28) is himself a brilliant thinker, preacher, writer, teacher, and leader; and similar claims could be made for Moses, David, Solomon, and others.

This may seem like a quibble over words, but words matter. If every natural ability is a spiritual hindrance or an idol, no one should go to seminary, or even to school. There is no reason for “training” to become “equipped” (2 Timothy 3:16-17); we are better off helpless. Such ideas have surfaced from time to time in church history, never with good results.

In the Bible, we find that God is graciously pleased to give His people abilities, from “the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18) to the New Testament gifts of the Spirit, which are entrusted to us like abilities for us to steward or administer, though of course “with the strength God provides” (1 Peter 4:10-11). So far from leaving us helpless, He makes some among us “competent as ministers” (2 Corinthians 3:6, NIV) and “qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2, NIV).(6)

Platt quotes the words of Jesus in John 15:5: “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (46). By themselves, though, these words invite passivity, quietism, even testing God by demanding that He act for us. Therefore, Christians typically balance this text with another one, Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (NIV; RSV has “in Him”; Amplified “I have strength for all things in Christ Who empowers me [I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him Who infuses inner strength into me; I am self-sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency]”).

As pastors know, there is a creative tension between these two texts. When I am proud and overconfident, I need to hear John 15:5, and recognize afresh my absolute dependence on the Savior. But when I am crushed and in despair (or, like Paul in prison, tempted to discontentment and fretfulness), Philippians 4:13 reminds me to persevere — and perhaps even to take godly initiative.

We desperately need the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, more than all the talents and gifts imaginable. But because God is good, He doesn’t glory in our inability. He is the loving Father who teaches us to walk (Hosea 11:3). He makes us able, qualified, and competent, even as He exalts and fills our weaknesses.

Issue 3: Is Every Christian Commanded to Go to the Nations?

The bulk of Radical is concerned with the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (RSV).

It is an important focus, ever timely. But after a horrific story about a church that dismisses the unsaved (or at least any who are overseas), Platt makes this statement: “Jesus commands us to go. He has created each of us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, and I propose that anything less than radical devotion to this purpose is unbiblical Christianity” (64).

If Matthew 28 were the whole of the New Testament, this conclusion would be inescapable. As it is, we have the Book of Acts and the epistles, which help us understand what “radical devotion” to Jesus’ words looked like soon after they were spoken, and what it might look like today. What do we find? Paul doesn’t urge his converts to go on to the next city, but to lead quiet lives and work with their hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Writing to his fellow missionaries Timothy and Titus, he focuses on elders in each congregation to provide stability.

According to Platt, “Jesus himself has not merely called us to go to all nations; he has . . . commanded us to go to all nations. We have taken this command, though, and reduced it to a calling — something that only a few people receive” (72-73).

Yet in Acts 13:2, while the church at Antioch is worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit says, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Already, perhaps 20 years after the Great Commission, it is a calling. Moreover, the calling comes to two individuals through the whole congregation. The Holy Spirit doesn’t rebuke everyone else for not following suit; their job is to hear, commission, send off, support, and pray. Not everyone goes, just as not everyone baptizes. The Great Commission is corporate, addressed to the entire Body of Christ; within each congregation, some are called to go, and some to send. Not for nothing does Scripture record David’s edict that the soldiers left behind, taking charge of supplies, would share equally in the reward with those who bore the heat of battle (1 Samuel 30:21-25).

Anyone who has lived on a mission field has observed the consequences of “All must go” teaching: uncalled, ill-equipped missionaries who crash and burn, harming themselves and the work.

Chapter 7 of Radical adds another element: the terrible urgency of missions work, because people are dying and going to hell. Platt writes, “We are the plan of God, and there is no plan B” (156).

I hesitate to take issue with this point, because this sense of urgency has helped to motivate some of the greatest Christian missionaries. Amy Carmichael was haunted by an image of people streaming over a precipice, while Christians sat by making daisy chains.(7) But we must ask whether it is Biblical to make this our overriding concern.

Even though Paul was called preach “where Christ was not known” (Romans 15:20), and lived “so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), he sometimes allowed other priorities to intrude. Instead of going on to unsaved Spain, he set sail for Jerusalem in the interests of church unity (Romans 15: 24-28). He was not deterred by the thought that thousands in Spain would die and go into eternity before he could return. Similarly, we read of the Holy Spirit preventing him from entering certain regions (Acts 16:6-7). If all that mattered were the presence of unsaved souls, such decisions would be positively immoral.

The “perishing souls” argument raises awful questions. Whey didn’t Jesus come earlier? Why didn’t He visit the large population of China? Why were Native Americans cut off from the Gospel for more than 1,000 years?

Against all such speculations, the Bible declares that God sent His Son “when the time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4, NIV), and that Christ died “at just the right time” (Romans 5:6, NIV). Jesus begins the Great Commission with these words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18, NIV; compare John 17:2). He is the general, opening and shutting doors; there are times and seasons that only He understands.

So when Platt says that I don’t need to inquire concerning God’s will for my life, because the answer is the same for all (159-60), I respectfully disagree. It is more Biblical to pray that we may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, so that we may live a life worthy of Him and know Him (Colossians 1:9-12).

I saw the consequences of overriding missionary zeal at one church, where every sermon emphasized Christians’ duty to bring their unsaved friends to church. One Sunday I brought an unsaved friend, and he listened without interest to a sermon on Christians’ duty to bring their unsaved friends to church. Meanwhile, church members struggled with addictions, failing marriages, and every temptation and trial, but no help was extended, because all that mattered were the perishing souls. In a way, that pastor cared a great deal for people — up until the moment when they joined his flock.

The Great Commission also colors Platt’s view of discipleship. Against James 3:1 (“Let not many of you become teachers,” RSV), Platt says that “Jesus’ command for us to make disciples envisions a teaching role for all of us” (100). Worse, he advises that, when I listen to a sermon, I should ask not What can I get out of this? but How can I listen to his Word so that I am equipped to teach this Word to others? (102).

This is poor counsel. The words of Jesus are spirit and life, but only as they are believed (John 6:63-64). If I do not sit under the Word and allow it to prune and change me, I am in danger of becoming one who preaches Christ insincerely or impurely, for effect (Philippians 1:17). Jesus doesn’t tell a parable of the sower and his little son, who is also learning to sow; rather, the sower interacts with soil — which, in the wisdom of God, has its own way of producing and dispersing seeds, without itself becoming a sower.


To present a “radical” Christian call to the modern world, it is not enough to attack wealth or comfort or even complacency. One must strike at the root of individualism, calling people into a community that is diverse and differentiated, yet intimate and deeply united. Platt ends by sketching this (204-07), but it cannot be tacked on at the end. Barnabas and Saul receive their calling to the Great Commission, or at least receive the confirmation that equips them to walk it out, as members of a worshiping community (Acts 13:2).

I repeat, Radical is written with good intentions. I hope that David Platt will write a better book one day. In the meantime, though, I urge believers to spend their time reading the radical calls of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jonathan Edwards.

(1) Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2010.
(2) 1937; transl. R.H. Fuller, rev. Irmgard Booth, 1959; New York: Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 1995.
(3) Bonhoeffer also discusses the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 (76-78), but this is largely to clarify and reinforce a point made about Jesus’ exchange with the rich young man.
(4) Sit, Walk, Stand (1957, 4th ed. 1962; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), 2.
(5) See Edwards’ first published sermon, God Glorified in Man’s Dependence (1731; full text online at A search for “absolute dependence” at Yale’s Jonathan Edwards Center website,, yields 36 occurrences. Within 50 years of Edwards’ sermon, American declared independence. In the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson exalted “Self-Reliance,” and in 1931, just 200 years after the sermon, J.T. Adams made the statement about the American dream that Platt quotes.
(6) The Greek word in both verses, hikanos, speaks to ability: it can be translated adequate, qualified (Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 2nd ed., 1888 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.], 3:175), competent, worthy (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996], New Testament section, 3).
(7) Any Wilson Carmichael, Things As They Are: Mission Work in Southern India (1903; London: Morgan and Smith, 1905), 41-44; Amy Carmichael, Gold Cord: The Story of a Fellowship (1932; London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1952), 339, 348.

Descriptive, Prescriptive, or Prophetic?

When we read the Bible, we Christians tend to use a dubious and disturbing method. We are on the prowl for principles. And when we find one, we pounce upon it, seize it with both hands, and run off with it — regardless of context, regardless of other texts, regardless of anything. Then, in our hands, the principle becomes a law, and the law becomes a stick to beat each other with.


Let me take an example. In Genesis 2:23, after the Lord creates woman from man’s side, He brings her to the man. Adam says: “This [creature] is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of a man” (Amplified).

Then Adam continues, or the narrator adds, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall become united and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (verse 24, Amplified).

I want to focus here on verse 24, the progression of leaving — cleaving — becoming one. Clearly, there is some sort of principle or generalized conclusion stated here. The RSV’s choice of tense makes this even clearer: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

But what sort of principle is presented here?

  • It might be an observation: This is how a man, at least some men, can be expected to behave. In this case, the “Therefore” makes sense: When a man meets the one whom his whole being recognizes, the one who can make him more fully all that he was created to be, then he will leave home for her. But for all we know, this may be a rare event, occurring once in a generation, or only at milestones in the history of salvation.
  • It might take on the force of a command: This is how every man should and must behave. The “Therefore” loses its force: This is not a wondrous occasion but a natural event — of course the right woman will come along. And when she does, you’d better get ready to leave. Woe to you if you don’t leave! Fortunately, we have a book-and-audio-CD set that can help you: The 17 L’s of Leaving.
  • Or it might be a prophetic statement: Someday, a certain Man will see a certain Woman, and become enraptured, and leave all for her.

We evangelicals have a tendency to rush to the second sort of reading. We want the Bible to be our rule for life, with something to say about every facet of existence. We are a bit desperate for texts that will tell us how to have a good marriage. This one looks serviceable, so let’s milk it for all it’s worth.

My church has been using A Biblical Portrait of Marriage, an older curriculum by Bruce Wilkinson of Walk Thru the Bible Ministries.(1) The first chapter and video are all about leaving. Insights from modern psychology are woven in, and, although there are Biblical references, the perspective is entirely that of modern American culture. We look at the “dependent” young couple, still too strongly attached to parents, and the “manipulative” parents, unwilling to let go.

Of course there are some truths here, and they are worth discussing. But are they really Biblical truths, or only baptized modern common sense?(2)

Most troubling are some of the logical conclusions drawn by the curriculum, as well as the questions left unanswered and unasked:

  • Since “leaving” occurs at marriage, what becomes of the young adult who never marries? Does he or she ever step out from under parental authority? Apparently not — even though, in Scripture, we see David, Elisha, and others make this transition before they marry.
  • Because “leaving” has the force of law — the curriculum speaks of taking actions “in order to fulfill the ‘leaving’ command” (1.7) — great weight and pressure fall on the conclusion that married adults should never live with (or next door to) parents. What are we to do when financial constraints rule out any other option? Is it always wiser and better to postpone marriage, perhaps indefinitely? And do we really want to imply that only people with middle-class or higher incomes can be Christians in good standing?
  • If married children should never live with parents, is it a sin for them to take in parents who have become aged and infirm?

Leaving in the Bible

If “leaving” were an important rule of life, we would expect to see examples throughout Scripture. We don’t. Quite the contrary: the system of land inheritance in Israel ensured that sons settled next to their fathers. (And daughters who inherited land not only stayed put, but had to marry within their clan and tribe, Numbers 36.) The Walk Thru the Bible curriculum advises that some married children should move to another state, but this simply wasn’t an option for most people in the Bible, not if they wished to own land.

Noah’s married sons live with Noah and his wife aboard the ark (Genesis 7:13). Perhaps those were desperate times, but we also find Job’s adult sons and daughters living (in their own homes) a stone’s throw away from him; he receives news of their deaths almost as quickly as he hears about his livestock (Job 1:13-19).

Rebekah leaves home for the sake of love, but her husband Isaac doesn’t (Genesis 24:57-67). Somehow their interests are split between their two sons, and there’s no indication that this is due to proximity to Isaac’s father, Abraham. Later, Rebekah sends her son Jacob back to stay with her brother Laban (27:43-45), but this hardly qualifies as an example of a parent “letting go.” Neither “leaving” nor failure to “leave” can adequately account for the tensions in this marriage.

Jacob lives (contentiously) with his uncle/father-in-law for 20 years (Genesis 31:38, 41); only at the end of this period does the Lord direct him to leave (31:3). Moses also lives with his father-in-law, long enough to have two sons (Exodus 2:21; 4:18). He leaves because the Lord calls him back to Egypt (4:19; 3:10), not because he is too “dependent” or his father-in-law too “manipulative.”

Apart from some pledges from the Lord to Israel, the most powerful and heartfelt expression of devotion in the Old Testament is not between a pair of young lovers; it is Ruth’s declaration to her mother-in-law (and, at that, ex-mother-in-law), Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17). Naomi plays matchmaker for Ruth and even claims Ruth’s son as her own (4:16-17). Yet the story is not told as a cautionary tale about the dire consequences of failing to “leave”; rather, it is a beautiful picture of redemption and inclusion.

If “leaving” is an all-important life passage, why does Jesus miss the opportunity to rebuke Peter for allowing his mother-in-law (and his brother Andrew) to live in his house (Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:29-30)? Why on earth, when He is on the cross, does He saddle John with His mother, Mary (John 19:26-27)? Shouldn’t He be counseling her to “let go”?

As the Walk Thru the Bible curriculum acknowledges (1.3), the word for “leave” in Genesis 2:24, azab, is a strong word, which can mean to forsake or abandon.(3) It appears in the prophetic cry of Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” It seems odd that the Bible would use so forceful a word simply of moving out of one’s parents’ house. It is rather like Jesus’ statement that, to be His disciple, we must hate — radically separate ourselves from — father and mother (Luke 14:26). But Jesus is not talking here about getting married; indeed, He adds that the disciple must hate wife and children too, and his own life.

Another Purpose

The New Testament quotes Genesis 2:24 several times. In Matthew 19:4-6, speaking against divorce, Jesus emphasizes the “becoming one flesh,” not the “leaving.” The same is true in 1 Corinthians 6:16, where Paul is discussing prostitution.

But in Ephesians 5:29-33, talking about marriage, Paul seems to look at the entire progression — leaving, cleaving, becoming one. He calls it “a profound mystery” (verse 32, NIV) that points to (RSV “and I am saying that it refers to”) Christ and the church.

Might this be a rather pointed hermeneutical tip? Could it be that Genesis 2:24 is not intended to serve as a “leaving command” but as a prophetic picture? Already, in the second chapter of the Bible, before the Fall, before there are adult children to leave or parents and homes to be left, God speaks of a Man who will love so deeply, so devotedly, that He will abandon all, lay aside His glory, cleave to His beloved by taking on her condition, and die and rise (even as Adam sleeps and suffers a tearing) so that we might be “one flesh” with Him, members of His body.

“You have ravished My heart, My sister, My bride, you have ravished My heart with a glance of your eyes” (Song of Songs 4:9, RSV). This is the love that impels Boaz when he “will not rest until the matter is settled” (Ruth 3:18). And, yes, this love is a model for every Christian husband — but not as a command. This is no mere principle that I can extract and apply. It is the burning heart of God; I must draw near to it, fearfully, and let it course through me, change me, rule me.(4)

More than 40 years ago, J.I. Packer pointed out that we have no shortage of books and sermons

on how to pray, how to witness, how to read our Bibles, how to tithe our money, how to be a young Christian, how to be an old Christian, how to be a happy Christian, how to get consecrated, how to lead men to Christ, how to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit (or, in some cases, how to avoid receiving it), how to speak with tongues (or, how to explain away Pentecostal manifestations), and generally how to go through all the various motions which the teachers in question associate with being a Christian believer. . . . Yet one can have all this and hardly know God at all.(5)

If we read the Bible for prescriptive principles, we turn it into a how-to book. We say, or verge on saying, that we can apply these principles ourselves. We don’t really need the Scriptures with their complexities and mysteries, once we extract and distill the principles.

Proverbs 3:5 enjoins us not to rely on our own understanding. But if we can put our trust in principles, we don’t really need the Holy Spirit. We might as well be living in Old Testament Israel. Apparently we don’t have hearts of stone (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26); we’re not constitutionally unfaithful because of a “spirit of prostitution” (Hosea 4:12; 5:4); we don’t need an inner change of mind and heart so that obedience springs from within, not without (Jeremiah 31:33).

Or we can read, again and again, the long and messy, wonderful stories of One who loves. He shatters our principles and exposes our sin. When we read in this way, we come away hungry, not confident in ourselves but pruned, and crying out for mercy. Over time, perhaps we learn to value what He does, and to grieve at anything less. We pray to be filled afresh with the Holy Spirit, not simply for strength to fulfill principles we understand, but to walk in obedience to promptings and texts that we cannot fathom.

This would be Biblical thinking, which might lead one day to a Biblical culture. It begins in a way of reading that has nothing to do with picking out principles and sermon points. If we but allow them, the Spirit and the Word will lay bare our hearts.

(1) Atlanta, GA: Walk Thru the Bible, 2001, 2008. The copyright date for many of the materials is 1995.
(2) Secular social psychologist Jonathan Haidt quotes this verse in discussing “transfer of attachment” in romantic love (The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom [New York: Basic-Perseus, 2006], 119).
(3) Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 87-88.
(4) Here I must acknowledge a very significant exception to the categories and ways of reading that I have been discussing. Walter Trobisch’s I Married You (1971; Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1997) is based entirely on Genesis 2:24. Trobisch finds in this verse principles for marriage, even an outline and a metaphor. Yet the atmosphere is utterly different from that of the Walk Thru the Bible curriculum, and of most Christian books today. “Leaving” is not a command to extract and apply, but a behavior observed (in one form or another) where there is love (87). The text is “like a deep well,” inexhaustible (18), and so Trobisch’s book is not a series of steps (how-to) but a narrative with different stories and examples. “Leaving” grows and changes: father and mother stand for the community, and “leaving” represents all that is public and legal in marriage (19-20, 27, 85-86); it is a paradox, since a union continues (41) — so that one can leave and later take in a parent (34); it requires divine wisdom (43); it never fully permeated Israel’s culture (67). Ultimately, it points to Jesus (147-48). This book is a rich, lived meditation.
(5) J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 22.

The Truth of Persecution

In the Book of Revelation, when John is caught up into heaven, he sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (6:9). The seraphim proclaim God’s holiness (4:8), and the host of heaven fall down and sing the worthiness of God and the Lamb (4:11; 5:9-14), but these souls are not praising, at least not at the moment. It is as if their sacrifice has qualified them to take up the calling of Isaiah’s watchmen on the walls, who “will never be silent day or night. You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, and give Him no rest till He establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (Isaiah 62:6-7).

As John looks on, these martyrs are “told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed” (Revelation 6:11). We presume that it will not be a small number; in 17:6, the city symbolically named Babylon and presented as a woman is “drunk with the blood of the saints.” As Jesus Himself warns in the Gospels, His followers “will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of Me . . . but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:9, 13). Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, says that he was converted from Platonic philosophy largely because he saw that Christians were “fearless of death” (Second Apology 12). In the early third century, Tertullian famously boasts, “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apology 50).

Yet now scholar Candida Moss writes that none of this ever happened.(1) Surveying early Christian history, with a skeptical eye concerning the reliability of our sources, she finds “fewer than ten years out of nearly three hundred during which Christians were executed as the result of imperial initiatives” (129; cf. 159, 241). “Christians were not consistently persecuted, hounded, or targeted by the Romans. Very few Christians died, and when they did, they were often executed for what we in the modern world would call political reasons” (14). She argues that the fourth-century church historian Eusebius, along with hagiographers (authors of saints’ lives) from the same period, were responsible for inventing a narrative of courageous suffering, which served to exhort other believers to stand firm for orthodoxy, and also to promote specific shrines (216-17, 245).

What should we make of this? I suggest that Moss’s claims, while overstated, can still help us to clarify and correct important aspects of our beliefs, attitudes, and outlook.

Defining Persecution and Martyrdom

First, it must be said that Moss sets the bar impossibly high in her definition of persecution. To take one example, “If persecution is to be defined as hostility toward a group because of its religious beliefs, then surely it is important that the Romans intended to target Christians. Otherwise this is prosecution, not persecution” (162). In other words, no attack, however severe, can be called religious persecution unless it can be established that the persecutors had bothered to acquire a theologically sophisticated understanding of the victims’ doctrines and practices. This despite the fact that, as Arthur J. Droge and James D. Tabor write, “. . . no one really seems to have cared what the Christians did or did not believe.”(2)

Moss takes as her starting point the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a Christian martyr as one who “chooses to suffer death rather than renounce faith in Christ or obedience to his teachings, a Christian way of life or adherence to a law or tenet of the church” (29). Notice, though, that the OED leaves it up to the martyr to decide whether a renunciation is at stake. Moss transfers this judgment to the persecutor. This leads to some absurd conclusions — most notably, that Stephen (in Acts 6-7) cannot be called a Christian martyr because the term “Christian” had not been coined (132-34)!

The Biblical tradition is not so stringent. Daniel’s friends are sentenced to death because they will not worship a gold image (Daniel 3:12), Daniel himself because he defies a ban on praying to the Lord (Daniel 6:12), and Mordecai and all his people because he will not bow down to honor a mere man (Esther 3:5). This is all that their enemies know, or care to know, about Jewish beliefs and customs. It is a crisis of conscience only for the faithful Jew, who feels he must disobey a ruler’s edict. For the ruler, all that matters is quashing any appearance of insubordination.

Similarly, in the New Testament, “it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God” (1 Peter 2:19). 1 Peter recognizes a distinction between suffering “as a Christian” (4:16) and suffering “for doing good” (2:20; 3:17), but it is of little consequence; what matters is that one has not incurred the suffering as a deserved punishment “for doing evil” (2:20; 3:17). The Beatitudes pronounce a blessing upon both those persecuted for righteousness and those persecuted specifically for Jesus’ sake (Matthew 5:10-12).

In the cases of Jesus and Stephen, both Jews and Romans (for different reasons) were afraid of Messianic pretenders. They did not need either the name or the concept “Christian” to recognize that Jesus’ followers were claiming for Him a unique and destabilizing authority. When they acted to silence such claims, they were, in effect, persecuting Christians.

The Extent of Persecution

Moss requires so much of persecutors that it is no wonder when she finds little evidence of persecution. Still, it is surprising that she focuses so much on the books of the New Testament which she, in common with most modern scholars, believes to be relatively late compositions. She pays scant attention to the letters of Paul, several of which are widely accepted as the earliest New Testament writings.

Paul himself bears witness that he once persecuted the church of God (Galatians 1:13, 23; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Philippians 3:6). This may not mean that he put people to death, or that he had extensive power or effectiveness, but it does indicate a deliberate, targeted campaign. It will not do to explain away as “prosecution,” the enforcement of a law (Moss 14), what the agent himself confesses was persecution carried out under a cloak of law.

Paul’s example also suggests a prime motive to persecute: the fear that one’s traditions and values are being threatened. Such fear easily clouds dispassionate inquiry; Peter Brown quotes a magistrate from about the year 200 who said to Christians, “I cannot bring myself so much as to listen to people who speak ill of the Roman way of religion.”(3) According to R.H. Barrow, such a reaction was typical:

The attitude of the Romans to foreign religion can be shortly described. When the official curators of the state religion admitted into public recognition a non-Roman cult by granting it a place among public festivals or a site for a temple, they saw to it that the cult was transformed in a way suitable to Roman tradition. The legend or story often underwent changes, the ritual and terminology were modified, and the cult bore a strong Roman imprint. When this was not possible, at least the objectionable elements were purged out of it.


Barrow goes on to say (147) that Romans would fully tolerate only those religions that were neither threatening to the dominant position of Roman cults, politically unsafe, nor morally undesirable. But Moss insists that Christians were subversive and rude, so that Roman officials held the moral high ground (186-87).(5)

It is striking to see that, with the exception of the Corinthians, the congregations to whom Paul writes are currently experiencing persecution. The Thessalonian believers have suffered opposition and hostility from their countrymen (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15); the Philippians must stand firm against opponents (1:28); the Galatians have suffered much (3:4); the Romans are reminded to bless their persecutors (12:14).

And Paul himself is encountering persecution. James Kelhoffer, to whom Moss refers in a footnote (291n23), suggests that Paul cites his many enemies as a way of legitimating his apostolic authority.(6) Perhaps. But his long and detailed catalogues of sufferings endured (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:23-25) indicate that he was not simply viewing the world through a persecution mania, convinced that everyone was out to get him. He lists specific, severe punishments.

What is most interesting, though, is that these discussions of sufferings and afflictions open up to take in much more than incidents of persecution. Alongside his beatings and imprisonments, Paul lists hunger and anxiety (2 Corinthians 6:4-5; 11:27-28). Epaphroditus is said to have risked his life “for the work of Christ” because he fell ill (Philippians 2:25-30). The Corinthians, at present free from afflictions of their own, are encouraged to relieve others’ suffering by giving sacrificially (2 Corinthians 8:14). Indeed, the picture that emerges is not of a community in which martyrdom is prized as a mark of courageous conviction and orthodox doctrine, but of one in which suffering of any sort is valued as developing character by uniting us to the weakness and utter dependence on God modeled by Jesus (Romans 5:3-4; 2 Corinthians 12:10). We shall return to this point in a moment.

Varieties of Noble Suffering

Moss devotes a chapter to showing that both Christian and Jewish writers consciously imitate Greek stories of “noble suffering.” Both in the New Testament and in accounts of martyrs, early Christian writers “drank deeply from the well of the noble-death tradition” (81). This is an important step in the reasoning that leads her to conclude that “none of the early Christian martyrdom stories is completely historically accurate” (124).

She observes that, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus appears “emotional and lost” as He faces death — and that the pagan critic Celsus mocked Him for this unbecoming weakness. In contrast, “Luke’s Jesus appears resolutely self-controlled”; He is depicted as a philosopher, a second Socrates (56-61).

There are a couple of points to be made here. First, the “weak” Jesus of Mark (and Matthew) was included in the New Testament, alongside Luke’s “edited” version; He continued to be read and preached and worshiped. Paul also emphasized Jesus’ weakness, and his own (1 Corinthians 1:25, 27; 2:3; 4:10; 9:22; 2 Corinthians 10:10; 11:21, 29; 12:9-10; 13:3-4, 9). So it cannot be said that this picture was simply abandoned as shameful. Rather, its contrast with, and challenge to, stories of noble suffering has had an incalculable impact, as John Stott said so well in The Cross of Christ:(7)

In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his.

But Moss also overstates the extent to which Luke transforms Jesus into a second Socrates. He is distressed or under pressure until His work is accomplished (12:50), and in Gethsemane He is in agony or anguish (22:44) — though Moss dismisses the latter passage (267n5). Moreover, it is Luke who records Jesus’ prayer that the Father forgive His killers (23:34). This has tremendous significance. It is not part of the Greek tradition; Socrates says only that he harbors no resentment against his accusers and judges because they have done him no real harm (Apology 33); to a philosopher, death is good, as it liberates the soul from the body (Phaedo 33-35). In the Old Testament, the righteous sufferer usually calls for vengeance: “Pour out Your wrath on them; let Your fierce anger overtake them” (Psalm 69:24). The Lord is glorified through justice, not forgiveness.

In Christianity, though, from the very beginning, persecution offers an opportunity to show the love of God that is stronger than hate. The radical and counterintuitive idea that one should forgive one’s persecutors is present in Jesus’ teaching (Luke 6:27-28) and in the early letters of Paul (Romans 12:14; 1 Corinthians 4:12), and Stephen imitates his Lord in putting it into practice (Acts 7:60). It is simply not true that “[t]he historical facts of what occurred during Jesus’s last days were overwritten with a theology of noble death and martyrdom” (Moss 61).

Some Points to Take Away

Despite these caveats, believers have much to learn from Moss’s work.

First, Moss repeatedly calls attention to the dangers of demonizing and dehumanizing those who persecute us, or who simply disagree with us. “Claims of being persecuted are used in order to exclude and suppress other groups, to identify them with demonic forces, and to legitimize rhetorical and perhaps also literal violence against them. . . . This myth of persecution was, paradoxically enough, a way to marginalize others” (246).

I can learn from this even though I do not share Moss’s faith that, if we just appeal to reason, we can always find common ground with critics and adversaries. (She briefly entertains the thought that persecution implies “blind hatred” [164], but this doesn’t sit well with her requirement that persecutors must be students of Christian theology.) Paul, for one, clearly believes that demons exist (1 Corinthians 10:20-21), and that most people walk in spiritual blindness (2 Corinthians 4:4; compare 1 Corinthians 2:14) or under a spiritual hardening (Romans 11:7, 25; 2 Corinthians 3:14). Nevertheless, he tries to persuade (2 Corinthians 5:11). He can slip into harsh language sometimes (Galatians 5:12; Philippians 3:2), as we do, but his conviction is that human foes, unlike demons, can be converted — as even Nebuchadnezzar, pagan king and destroyer of Jerusalem, turned from casting Daniel’s friends into a furnace to honoring their God (Daniel 4:34-37). Persecutors are to be blessed, and loved, in hope. Paul is convinced that he is not some unique trophy as one “preaching the faith he once tried to destroy”; others like him will be saved by grace as he was, and the church will praise God who works such miracles (Galatians 1:23).

Secondly, Christians should expect persecution. Of course we are not the only group to experience persecution (a straw man that Moss spends much energy demolishing). But 1 Thessalonians 3:3-4 affirms that Christians are “destined” to be persecuted (see also 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 2:21). Perhaps someone will attempt to answer Moss by proving that many Christians before Constantine suffered martyrdom. Yet it seems equally important, and considerably more urgent, to support today’s persecuted Christians, and to share their stories. Open Doors ( is a great place to start.

At the same time, persecution is only one form of suffering, and all righteous or innocent suffering draws us closer to Christ. Therefore we should honor the sick in our midst, the disabled, the mentally ill, the grieving, the outcasts, the abused, and the oppressed of all faiths, alongside those persecuted for following Christ. Jesus may have suffered particularly by drawing out human hostility toward God; in His kindness, though, He accepts almost any variety of pain as sufficiently similar to grant us entry into “the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).

Lastly, when we encounter conflict, Moss’s critique can help us not to jump too hastily to the conclusion that we are being persecuted. We should at least apply the test spelled out in 1 Peter, asking, Have I done anything wrong, anything to cause unnecessary offense and bring this trouble on myself? Moreover, can I put this right by dropping pride and defensiveness, and reaching out to the other? We witness (the root meaning of “martyr”), first and foremost, by being people of integrity.

(1) The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (New York: HarperOne-HarperCollins, 2013).

(2) A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom Among Christians and Jews in Antiquity (New York: HarperSanFrancisco-HarperCollins, 1992), 133. Droge and Tabor also cite Augustine as the source of the distinction between persecution and prosecution, but understand prosecution as “the necessary and legal repression of criminals” (170), not as any non-theologically motivated exercise of state judicial power.

(3) The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750 (1971; New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1989), 17.

(4) The Romans (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1949, 1953), 144-45.

(5) Barrow acknowledges that “Christians often deliberately invited persecution,” but balances this with the observation that “Christianity was particularly vulnerable to misinterpretation” because, like a state or an empire, it claimed the allegiance of all peoples (181-83).

(6) Persecution, Persuasion and Power: Readiness to Withstand Hardship as a Corroboration of Legitimacy in the New Testament (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 43.

(7) The Cross of Christ (1986; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 326-27.